Cities Eligible For Agencies Help

October 28, 2002
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Three state agencies are pooling their resources and joining forces for a triple-teamed approach toward making Michigan's downtown areas attractive centers in which to live, work, play and conduct business.

The Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC), Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) and the Michigan Municipal League (MML) recently announced the Downtowns of Michigan Initiative, a partnership to encourage growth and development of Michigan's inner cities and towns.

The program is designed to use the expertise, funding and resources through a collaborative effort among the three organizations. At stake are "hundreds of thousands of dollars" of matching grants, according to Jeff Kaczmarek, MEDC's senior vice president for Business and Community Services.

"We will marshal our resources together under this one banner, but it won't preclude the other programs going on in these organizations," Kaczmarek said. "We wanted to try to focus our resources on downtown development resources, because we see it critical to Michigan.

"Downtowns need to be great places to live, work and play, but they also need to maintain their job base, whether it's retail or service oriented."

The partnership aims to ensure that Michigan's core communities and traditional centers of commerce continue to thrive as great places to work and live.

"MSHDA's participation with MEDC and the Michigan Municipal League is a prime example of how powerful a role partnerships can play in revitalizing our downtowns in Michigan communities," MSHDA Executive Director James L. Logue III said. "Affordable housing within cities of Michigan is a critical component of revitalization."

Although downtown development initiatives are nothing new, this is the first time that the three autonomous Michigan agencies have combined strategies, resources and funding for the same project.

"It's not going to replace the normal operations of our agencies," Kaczmarek said. "The idea is to organize this a little more effectively than in the past.

"We will be able to provide assistance in a more coordinated manner. There will be a lot of joint projects that have both a housing and a public infrastructure.

"By partnering together, we get more bang for our buck and increase the synergy in those areas."

The collaborative effort offers many services to communities, including information on funding sources, technical assistance and educational opportunities. Much of the focus is aimed at effective use of downtown redevelopment tools, new legislative initiatives and national best practices.

It is aimed at providing similar services to municipal areas of varying sizes, whether it is Detroit or Holland or Cedar Springs.

"Whether the smallest or biggest of downtowns, they all represent quality of life of their region, and — most importantly — reflect the status of Michigan as a leader to the world in the 21st century," said Michigan Municipal League Executive Director George Goodman. "This joint effort to assist downtowns reinforces Michigan's position at the top of the list in the development of progressive economic development policies and partnerships."

The strategic direction for the partnership is being guided by an advisory group comprised of representatives of the MEDC, MSHDA and MML, as well as the Michigan Historic Preservation Network (MHPN), Michigan State Historical Preservation Office and Michigan Downtown & Finance Association.

The Michigan Municipal League will staff inquiries for downtown initiatives and provide the initial referral. The MML is in the process of establishing a Web site and an 800 number.

Technical assistance will be provided by the MEDC's community assistance team that works with municipalities throughout the state on a wide variety of issues, including downtown development, brownfield issues and market studies.

The Michigan Economic Development Corp. is a partnership between state and local communities designed to promote economic growth by developing strategies and providing services to create and retain good jobs and a high quality of life.

The partnership will provide a reference point to direct interested parties to the correct agencies for assistance.

Another component the partnership is bringing to the table is a link to the National Mainstreet Program, which is run through a national trust for historic preservation. A community may enroll as a member in the program that could provide additional technical and financial assistance to downtown development, according to Kaczmarek.

"A key element in all of this is the quality of life component, and what downtowns can do to maintain their physical and technical infrastructure to make it desirable," Kaczmarek said. "Things such as park areas or other areas that define, and in many cases, utilize historic structures need to be preserved and rebuilt, not to just be attractive but also be economic engines.

"We want to make these communities attractive places to live as well," Kaczmarek added. "They can be very attractive living environments. You see around the country how dynamic communities can attract and keep people. That challenge is the same for small communities.

"You need all the components to make sure local downtowns are viable and grow and prosper."

The Michigan Municipal League, meanwhile, is attempting to set up downtown institutes, where local officials can gather to gain expertise in downtown development and become certified as downtown professionals. The MML will package its training program into an educational curriculum for communities to increase the local skill base in downtown areas.

Organizational support — including maintenance of an 800 number and Web site, which will serve as the initial contact point for the partnership — is being provided by the MML.

The final piece of the puzzle comes in the form of a series of downtown challenge grants, according to Kaczmarek, who said several hundred thousand dollars will be earmarked for the project.

"In the past, we have funded a modest amount for communities to take advantage of," Kaczmarek said. "We don't have the exact figures, but there will be hundreds of thousands of dollars earmarked for the project, and we will be able to accommodate up to 10 large challenge grants on a 50-50 basis.

"It is a way to infuse money into the program, while using the expertise and combined resources of the agencies cooperating in the partnership."

The initiative is in the final stages of the developmental process and the pieces are in place for the program to be fully implemented by January, according to Kaczmarek.           

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