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
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
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
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
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
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
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.