Downtowns give thumbs up to Main Street program

By CARL STODDARD

Capital News Service

LANSING — Grayling is a member. So are Three Rivers, Blissfield and downtown Lansing.

In all, nearly two dozen communities in Michigan are members of the Michigan Main Street initiative.

The goal of the program, coordinated by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC), is to help Michigan cities breathe new life into their downtowns and central business districts.

Grayling is in the middle of its second year in the Main Street program, said Rae Gosling, director of Grayling’s Main Street initiative.

“It’s going well,” Gosling said. ”We are very active in the program.

“I think the big difference Grayling has seen is involving the community.”With the Main Street program, Grayling has “a vessel to pull people together, drawing in our volunteers, drawing in our residents,” she said.

Since becoming a Main Street member community, she said Grayling has increased the number of its retail events, drawing more people to the downtown district.

Grayling also worked with a consultant to create a logo, a brand and a new marketing strategy.

It doesn’t cost anything to apply to be a Main Street community, she said, but money is needed for the local program’s operating budget, training and economic development efforts.

“It’s an investment in our community,” Gosling said.

Three Rivers became a Michigan Main Street community nearly four years ago, said David Vago, the executive director of the city’s Main Street program.

Three Rivers’ biggest gain since joining Main Street “is not yet evident on the street,” Vago said.

But that’s about to change.

Three significant businesses are under construction in Three Rivers, he said. They are a brewpub, a general store and a coffee shop.Plus, plans for another new restaurant are in the works.

“So the upshot basically is our group has been working for three years to get businesses downtown,” Vago said.

Like Grayling, the program encouraged Three Rivers to organize a team of volunteers “to take grassroots interest and organize it,” Vago said.

Blissfield joined the Michigan Main Street program in 2010, said Tyler Dotson, director of the village’s Downtown Development Authority.

“Our affiliation with the Main Street program allowed us to get organized,” Dotson said.

He said Main Street provided resources to recruit and empower local volunteers. That allowed Blissfield to add more events and to grow some existing ones, like the annual Blissfield Tractor Cruise-In.

That mid-August event typically attracts 80 to 100 tractors and hundreds of spectators, Dotson said.

The Main Street program gives Blissfield access to marketing experts, advertising specialists and even architects, he said.

And several times a year, representatives from Michigan Main Street communities get together to share ideas and “best practices,” he said.

On the west side of the Lower Peninsula, the small city of Hart has been in the program since 2010, said Julie Kreilick, Hart’s Main Street manager.

And membership has its benefits, Kreilick said.

According to the program’s latest annual report, it has prompted $1.2 million in private investment in Hart since 2010, she said.

In the same period, Kreilick said, the program brought in 20 new businesses and led to the improvement of 45 facades in the downtown district.

Since 2010, Kreilick said, Hart’s  program also has attracted 16,000 hours in volunteers’ time.

“So we have a lot to be proud of,” she said.

Kreilick said the program was the driving force behind creation of Hart Commons, an outdoor theater overlooking Hart Lake.

“It has been a lovely addition to our community,” she said.

Laura Krizov, manager of the Michigan Main Street Center at the MEDC, said the program offers a comprehensive management tool for “downtown revitalization that is grassroots driven.”

“Main Street is about the business, property owners, municipality, residents and other organizations within the community wanting to make their downtown a better place,” Krizov said. “We say that if you have a strong downtown you will have a strong community.”

Michigan Main Street assists cities in attracting new residents and business development, and spurring economic growth and job creation.

Communities in the program advance through a four-step process. Krizov said 11 communities have reached the highest level in the process and now are called Master Communities.

They are Blissfield, Boyne City, Grand Haven, Hart, Howell, Niles, Old Town in Lansing, Owosso, Portland, Saline and Wayland.

Seven other communities have reached the Select Communities level, Krizov said. They are Charlevoix, downtown Lansing, Grayling, Milan, Otsego, Three Rivers and Wayne.

Downtown Lansing joined the program in July 2008. Downtown Lansing Inc manages its program..

“We take a smart, common-sense approach to building a vibrant Lansing through historic preservation, community self-reliance and local ownership,” Downtown Lansing Inc. says on its website.

“Our goal is to strengthen the social economic health of our downtown and our community.”

In one year, participating communities generated more than $47 million in private investment, 100 new businesses and 120 facade improvements, according the Michigan Main Street Center’s annual report for 2015-2016.

Michigan Main Street, which began in 2003, is affiliated with the Main Street America program and the National Main Street Center, according to the MEDC. Theprogram also works in partnership with the Michigan State Historic Preservation Office.