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The Restoration: The Curtain Can't Go Up Until The Wall Comes Down

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Year-Old Program to Make Cities Cool Only the Start for Some

From The Evening News, August 15, 2005

PORTLAND (AP)—Riverside boardwalks. Renovated storefronts. Loft apartments.

Those are among the improvements paid for by state grants last year under Gov. Jennifer Granholm's plan to make urban areas across Michigan more appealing to young professionals.

Nineteen projects across the state received grants worth $100,000 in the first year of the "Cool Cities" program. A few cities now have newly renovated buildings. But others still are getting permits or continuing to raise money to supplement the state grants.

Residents in some of the 16 cities that won a grant last year are enjoying new amenities, including parks, river walks and art centers, and their new "Cool City" status. Others are awaiting the results of the awards.

"We've made a lot of progress on paper but not lot in bricks and mortar," Portland City Manager Tom Dempsey says of his city's efforts to build a 450-foot boardwalk along the Grand River in Ionia County. "A lot of folks thought that because we had a concept for this boardwalk it would happen very quickly, but it took a lot longer."

City officials want to put the boardwalk behind several downtown buildings to bring shoppers and other visitors to the riverfront. But the project needs several state permits and the approval of a dozen building owners before moving ahead.

The delay has held up 13 loft apartments planned for the riverside buildings.

But other projects have moved ahead. Ten new apartments were built in other downtown buildings with the help of state housing funds available through the "Cool Cities" program.

Some officials in cities that received grants in the first year of the program say the awards gave them easy access to state officials who handle permits for urban renewal projects and opened doors to other funding and donated services.

In Sault Ste. Marie, the campaign to restore a 1930s-era theater and improve neighboring storefronts has received about $100,000 in donated services, including most of the work needed to tear down a wall that split the theater stage.

"Our architect estimated the project will cost $3 million, but I think we can do it for less because there already have been so many in-kind contributions," says Colleen Arbic, one of the project organizers. She expects the restoration to take three to five years.

State economic development officials are not deterred by the slow progress of some projects.

"Cool Cities" program coordinator Karen Gagnon says the projects funded last year have already spurred $350 million in investments and helped create 400 new jobs and retain 500 others.

The projects are designed to produce trendy apartments and cultural venues, such as art galleries, that may keep twenty-somethings from leaving for Chicago, Boston or San Diego.

The need to stop the state's brain drain is clear. Between 1995 and 2000, Michigan lost an estimated 43,000 young college graduates, who left the state for everything from jobs to warmer year-round weather.

With the "Cool Cities" initiative and other programs, the state hopes to not only keep more of its native college students but hold onto those from other states who come to Michigan to attend its colleges and universities.

Not everyone, however, thinks "Cool Cities" will make a difference. Central Michigan University economics professor Michael Shields says it will take decades, not years, to determine whether Granholm's program successfully creates cities appealing to young adults.

"It's going to take a long time because what they're doing is designating cities for improvement to make them more attractive, particularly to businesses that might service younger people," Shields says. "In theory it's a good idea. Whether it will really work, I'm skeptical."

The Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank, has criticized the "Cool Cities" grant program since the Democratic governor proposed it in 2003.

Michael LaFaive, the center's fiscal policy director, says governments generally are not successful in their attempts to be cool. He pointed to incorrect predictions that the "Autoworld" indoor amusement park built in Flint in the mid-1980s would attract millions of tourists to the area. Instead, it closed after six months because of poor attendance.

"Cool is in the eye of the beholder," LaFaive says. "As soon as the governor encourages something because she says it's cool, young people are going to think it's not cool."

Despite such criticism, the program has received enthusiastic support from city officials and is a key part of the governor's economic development efforts.

"Cool Cities" coordinator Gagnon, who is from the Upper Peninsula, says the program is intended not only to spruce up streetscapes but to change the way people think about urban areas. She already has seen a change in her own perspective.

"I used to think of Detroit as scary. I was afraid of it," she says. "Since I've been involved in this program, my whole way of thinking about Detroit is different. The growth, the people I have met -- I am so impressed."

Three Detroit projects received a "Cool Cities" grant last year. Construction has not yet started on rehabilitating the historic Odd Fellows Hall and an 1890s-era shed in the Eastern Market neighborhood because project organizers had to raise more money.

But the Jefferson East Business Association is working on redeveloping three historic buildings downtown and filling them with tenants. One of the buildings is finished and occupied and two others are under construction, project director Libby Pachota says.

Saugatuck used its $100,000 "Cool Cities" grant awarded last year to renovate an old pie factory into a center for the arts. The center now houses the new Mason Street Warehouse theater.

In Alpena, a new section of the walkway along the Thunder Bay River built with a "Cool Cities" grant is getting the finishing touches, assistant city manager Eric Cline says. Soon, signs will be placed along the river describing area conditions in the 1900s.

"The whole 'Cool Cities' project has raised a lot of awareness about Alpena and generated a lot of community pride," Cline says.

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