Making A Mark In Muskegon Heights

July 13, 2007
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MUSKEGONHEIGHTS — Commonly perceived as one of the most blighted communities in the West Michigan area, MuskegonHeights is hoping efforts to attract new investment in its historic downtown can open developers’ eyes to large-scale opportunities in its transitional commercial district.

In its initial efforts, the city is even giving away land. Next month, it will attempt to lure entrepreneurs to the downtown area with the offer of a city-owned property in the city center at

22 E. Broadway Ave.
for $1. A tour of the building is scheduled for tomorrow afternoon, and proposals will be accepted throughout the month.

“Someone can really come in here and make a splash,” said Shannon McMaster, executive director of the Muskegon Heights Downtown Development Authority. “If you’re looking to make a name for yourself, this is a great opportunity for you.”

A decade ago, a generation of developers became community heroes for their pioneering efforts in Grand Rapids. Today, such projects are commonplace in Grand Rapids. Even in Muskegon, McMaster noted, ground-floor redevelopment opportunities are becoming harder to find. But in MuskegonHeights, there is a dearth of investment.

“A big pile of money in Grand Rapids might not go very far, and even in Muskegon it’s getting pricey,” said McMaster. “Here, it’ll go a long way and you’re not going to have anyone competing with you — at least not right now.”

As McMaster is quick to point out, it’s impossible not to notice the vacancies in the downtown area. There are literally blocks of storefronts vacant along

Peck Street
, the downtown’s north-south axis, and similar stretches along
Broadway Avenue
, the historical main street that runs the length of the city from Norton Shores to Muskegon

“It’s easy to look at downtown and say, ‘Goodness, they have a lot of vacancies,’” McMaster said. “What I see is opportunity.”

In the past year, Muskegon Heights has taken aim at its urban core as an economic development catalyst — a strategy that has seen great success in Grand Rapids, Grand Haven, Muskegon, Holland and other communities throughout West Michigan.

A recent study by Washington, D.C.-based downtown revitalization consulting group HyettPalma as part of the state’s Cool Cities Blueprints for Michigan’s Downtowns initiative laid out an action plan for the downtown district, keying on its historical buildings, close-knit community, ample parking, heavy traffic, and a variety of high-quality service and retail enterprises already in the neighborhood.

McMaster compared the downtown vision to the Eastown neighborhood in Grand Rapids, a bustling historic district with racially and economically diverse stakeholders.

The Muskegon Heights Downtown Blueprint 2007 lays out a plan with hopes of not only a vibrant downtown, but a regional destination. Among other assets, MuskegonHeights has a ready-made village green, RowanPark, suitable for large community events, a successful farmers market, and the newly opened MuskegonCountyAfricanAmericanMuseum. HyettPalma suggested building on MuskegonHeights’ position as the only predominantly African-American community in the West Michigan area.

The Downtown Development Authority, newly revitalized with new board members and a new executive director, will be the driving force behind many of these efforts. Streetscape, infrastructure and public safety improvements will likely be authority funded. The DDA also owns more than a half-dozen buildings in the downtown area, including all the structures in the city’s yet-untouched 12-acre Renaissance Zone.

Currently, the DDA is focusing on

22 E. Broadway Ave.
, the one-story, recently renovated property it will provide to an owner-occupied business for $1. Proposals are due on Aug. 10. Primarily a marketing effort for the authority, McMaster hopes the give-away will draw investors’ attention to a larger project planned for the near future: the Strand Theater.

Built by the same company responsible for what is today Muskegon’s FrauenthalCenter for Performing Arts, the three-story Strand Theater is MuskegonHeights’ most recognizable historic structure. It can accommodate up to four commercial storefronts and 20 residential units while maintaining the theater portion of the complex for community use. Initial plans call for the city to retain ownership of the theater portion of the building, while partnering with as many as three developers to market the commercial and residential portions.

“One of the great things about MuskegonHeights is that, for many years, the high school served an enormous geography,” McMaster said. “Fruitport, MonaShores — everybody went to MuskegonHeights. All these people knew the Strand Theater and downtown growing up, and we just need to remind them that it’s there.”

Obviously, there are some major challenges ahead for the authority. Far and away the largest concern of Muskegon-area consumers surveyed by HyettPalma was public safety.

“It’s a safe community. But there is an image problem, and perception is reality,” McMaster said. “When you see people standing on the sidewalk, do you see people enjoying the weather or people looking for trouble? It’s really what you bring into it. … The real problem is the perception of poverty. Whether it’s here or in Grand Rapids or Grand Haven, people are uncomfortable in poor neighborhoods.”

A top priority for the downtown area is an increased police presence, but this is a problem that can only be solved by increased investment, McMaster said.

“Historically, the downtown existed to serve employers and employees,” he explained. “There were a number of major factories within two blocks of here, and that employment base is virtually all gone today.”

Thomas Smith, a DDA board member and owner of Urban Apparel & Accessories in MuskegonHeights at

75 W. Broadway Ave.
, believes the downtown area has made significant progress of late.

“There is some momentum,” he said. “If we get any shot in the arm with the economy, I think MuskegonHeights will take off. There is an unlimited amount of opportunity if you’re willing to come forward and invest here.”

While the real estate opportunities are evident, HyettPalma suggested some clear opportunities from a market standpoint, as well. MuskegonHeights is centrally located within a market area of nearly 70,000 people, at least a third of which travel to the downtown area on a regular basis.

Although shopping is the most common reason for visiting the downtown area, these consumers are still statistically more likely to shop in Grand Rapids as MuskegonHeights. If the downtown area were to increase its retail market share to only 4.5 percent, that would put an additional $20 million into the community.

A corresponding survey of the office market suggested that the downtown area could absorb an additional 10,000 to 12,000 square feet of office use.

Cindy Larsen, president of the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce, sees in MuskegonHeights similar challenges to what Muskegon faced a few short years ago.

“It will take some time, but as they start to develop downtown, the image problems will dissipate,” said Larsen. “If you look at what downtown Muskegon looked like five years ago and what it looks like today, there is reason to be optimistic. They’ve implemented the same kind of plan, and I’m confident they’ll be able to follow in the city of Muskegon’s footprints.”    

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