As more people work from home, communities focus on attracting residents

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Capital News Service 

LANSING —   A new $2 million state grant for rehabilitating the historic Keefer House in downtown Hillsdale reflects an ongoing effort to revitalize older communities. 

Michelle Parkkonen, Michigan Economic Development Corp.’s managing director of technical assistance programs, says the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in more people working from home. With employment no longer dictating where individuals live,  it is important for communities to rehabilitate.  

“People are attracted to vibrant places to live, work and play. Therefore, Michigan communities that are working to build vibrant downtowns and commercial cores, are certainly well-positioned to be resilient coming out of the pandemic,” Parkkonen said. “Michigan’s success as a state is a direct relation to the success of the people that live here.”

MEDC launched the Redevelopment Ready Communities initiative focused on creating for communities a solid foundation for attracting developers. 

Since 2018, the MEDC has consulted with communities on over 150 sites.  

Hillsdale is one of the 46 certified redevelopment-ready communities cities that the MEDC serves. 

According to Parkkonen, the evaluation for certification can take from 9 months to several years. There are currently 226 cities under evaluation.

Michigan Municipal League Executive Director Dan Gilmartin said the state has seen a minimal increase in population growth since 1980, but continued development of infrastructure that Michigan can’t afford.

We haven’t had growth,” Gilmartin said. “We’ve had development, and there is a difference.”

Newer communities 20 miles from core communities were developed, which led residents of older communities to move there. These older communities became less sustainable, and that eventually led to an erosion of their infrastructure, he said.

“We just move people around,” Gilmartin said. “You see it in the big cities, but you also see it in a place like Manistee — an older community with older infrastructure that is sort of being left behind.

“People are moving to a township 10 miles away, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s not sustainable, and it is a horrible growth pattern.”

While the MEDC focuses on generating population and job opportunities within communities, its Redevelopment Ready Site initiative also tries to revitalize downtowns and historic buildings which will create a “human experience” in which residents and tourists will feel connected to.

Hillsdale economic development coordinator Kelly LoPresto said renovation of the Keefer Hotel is key to restoring the city’s historic downtown, but is also seeking projects which will support an increase in the city’s population.

Since 2008, the former Hillsdale Tool property — sitting on 4.54 acres and adjacent to a city park and resident housing — has been vacant.

LoPresto said developing housing on the site would attract a large workforce to live in the community. 

“One of the primary issues with expanding commercial or industrial development is workforce,” LoPresto said. “Hillsdale is in desperate need of median income housing that would be attractive places to relocate a workforce for any new or expanding venture.” 

The efforts for revitalization are mirrored throughout Michigan communities. Scott Fleming, an economic developer in Jackson, expects renovation to begin near the end of this year on the Hayes Hotel. The property has been vacant for 15 years.

The property is expected to create several retail operations, more demand for office and entertainment. With the assistance of grants, Fleming expects the rehabilitation to take a year. 

“It has a lot of nostalgic memories for native Jackson folks,” Fleming said.  “It will be used during the many events that occur during the spring, summer and fall.”

The changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic leads many developers and city officials to reevaluate how to create growth and retention within their communities. 

“You can no longer compartmentalize all the different things we are trying to accomplish,” Gilmartin said. “It gets down to the human experience. What we are trying to do is improve the human experience. 

“It means something different depending on the person, but for the most part  it is providing opportunities, the appropriate amenities, and everything else that goes with a community. Having a holistic approach to that is so needed.”

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