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Lakeshore to Detroit: What 1,300 downtown professionals are learning from Detroit this week


When the Grand Haven DDA heads to the Main Street conference in Detroit this week, they're bringing their downtown savvy to share with place-makers from across the country. Natalie Burg shares some hard numbers on why downtown revitalization is good business, no matter where you live in Michigan.
The Grand Haven Main Street Downtown Development Authority is on a road trip this week.
 
Members of the organization, along with other area Main Street communities, are invading Detroit this week. They're joined by more than 1,300 downtown development professionals, volunteers and thinkers from communities throughout the country. For four days, they're attending 60 educational sessions in Cobo Hall, as well as traveling to 15 areas in Metro Detroit for mobile workshops. They're touring Ferndale. They're partying at Eastern Market. For the first time, Detroit is hosting the annual National Main Street Conference.
 
Why does that matter to Grand Haven? Because over the last 30 years, the National Main Street Center has tracked $59.6 billion in reinvestment in physical improvements from both public and private sources in their communities, with a net gain of 115,381 businesses and 502,728 jobs. In 2013, every dollar invested in Main Street communities resulted in $33.28 of economic impact, making it the most effective downtown revitalization effort in the country -- and Grand Haven has contributed to those great statistics.
 
Main Street communities, such as Grand Haven Main Street DDA, use the National Main Street Center's Four Point Approach, an organizational technique to revitalize historic downtowns. The concept centers on a comprehensive strategy that addresses a range of common downtown development issues simultaneously — all driven by volunteers. 
 
"It's easy to put everything on our director's desk to do, but what we've had to realize as we grow and mature is that it all has to come from the volunteers," says Dale Kwekel, past chair of the Grand Haven Main Street DDA.
 
When Grand Haven Main Street DDA officially joined the program almost a decade ago, they'd already been operating DDA for some time. What the organization has found is that leveraging volunteers to tackle all aspects of downtown development - promotions, organization, business development and design - has made all the difference for downtown Grand Haven.
 
"We had a mayor at the time who wasn't particularly interested in the downtown merchants having anything to say," Kwekel says. "The empowerment of a state organization in a proven program with a four committee process really gave legitimacy to the whole thing."
 
What they've managed to do with that legitimacy is a testimony to the impact of Main Street. The vacancy rate for first-floor businesses downtown Grand Haven has gone from 30 percent to zero. Infrastructure has been improved, power lines buried, and downtown Grand Haven's reputation has changed from a seasonal destination to a place for year-round shopping, dining and events.
 
"Our pitch to the area is that Grand Haven's downtown is everybody's downtown," says Kwekel. "We had to make an appeal that it's worthwhile to invest in our central business district."
 
Among the many services available to Grand Haven Main Street DDA, including training and free design, marketing and branding services from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority's Michigan Main Street Center, one of the biggest benefits to being a part of the nationwide movement is the networking and support from other communities.
 
Diane Larkin"Having a network of other Main Streets across the state and across the country brings you a valuable resource toolbox so you don't have to reinvent the wheel," says Grand Haven Main Street Manage Diane Larkin. "Rather than research and develop, you can rip off and duplicate. It's a great resource to be able to share."
 
That networking is in hyperdrive this week during the National Main Street Conference. While the annual event has been hosted in such cities as Des Moines, Baltimore and Oklahoma City, Larkin finds Detroit to be an especially apt location for this year's event.
 
"I think it's awesome that the conference is in Detroit this year," says Larkin. "Main Street is all about incremental changes and taking a community and making it better. Detroit is a perfect example of that work in process."
 
What's more, though there are currently no official Main Street organizations within Detroit, Michigan itself is home to two state coordinating bodies, the Michigan Main Street Center and Oakland County's Main Street Oakland County, and more than 30 local programs throughout the state. And, not to brag, but Michigan communities have left three of the last four National Main Street Conferences with coveted Great American Main Street Awards — including Grand Haven's nomination this year.
 
"We are seeing a lot of Michigan communities really standing out," says Patrice Frey, president and CEO of the National Main Street Center. "Michigan Main Street and Oakland County have a really strong track record of working with and investing in communities. But it comes back down to the people on the ground."
 
Those people on the ground, ready to roll up their sleeves to make a better community, are what Main Street communities have in common more than anything else, making the theme of this year's conference, "Works in Progress" incredibly appropriate.
 
"There might be a lot of work ahead for areas in Detroit, but we're a city on the rise and on the comeback," says Main Street Community Downtown Ferndale's Cristina Sheppard-Decius. "We have a lot of great lessons people can learn from that."
 
Fortunately, the Chicago-based National Main Street Center recognized that -- and believed in Detroit enough to bring their popular conference to a city with so much to share.
 
Patrice Frey"Nobody knows better than Detroiters the power of a community-driven approach to revitalization," write Frey and National Main Street Center Board Chair Barbara Sidway in the conference program.
 
And after this week, Grand Haven Main Street DDA and others will be bringing that knowledge and experience back from Detroit to the benefit of our lakeshore, just as Detroit will be left with some Grand Haven wisdom to fold into the revitalization efforts happening there.
 
Want to see what's happening in Main Street communities throughout Michigan? Check out the eight other Issue Media Group Publications this week to learn how Main Street and this week's conference is making an impact from Iron Mountain to Saline.
 
This story is part of a placemaking series that is underwritten by the Michigan State Housing and Development Authority.
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