MUSKEGON — While development took off in Muskegon’s downtown in recent years, the city’s Downtown Development Authority mostly sat on the sidelines as it paid off bonds on the old Muskegon Mall.
Now that the DDA finally has money to spend, the agency is looking forward to a fresh start and stepping up to fund downtown improvement projects, oversee promotions and some events, and develop incentive programs for new businesses.
That includes consolidating the work of Downtown Muskegon Now, a nonprofit created to help with downtown marketing and promotions, into the DDA within the next six months.
Muskegon City Manager Frank Peterson, who also serves on the DDA board, estimates the authority’s budget at $1.6 million for the 2019-2020 fiscal year, which starts in July. Roughly $1.1 million is tax capture, with the remaining money coming from Downtown Muskegon Business Improvement District and brownfield redevelopment funds.
The DDA still has a small debt to repay Muskegon County on a promissory note, but the current level of funding “is a good number that will hold up over the long term,” Peterson said.
For the last 25 years, Muskegon’s DDA primarily met to approve payments for bonds on the long-gone Muskegon Mall. The same group also serves as the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority (BRA), and reviewed and approved projects involving dilapidated sites.
The BRA has played significant roles in about two dozen projects since the demolition of the mall, Peterson said.
“They were very active on that end in helping the developers secure reimbursement for that cleanup or related activity,” Peterson said. “Pretty much anything that has had major investment in it has leveraged brownfield reimbursement. It’s been the only tool that the DDA had to offer.”
However, because of the bond payment burden, the cash-poor DDA could not do much in the way of investments in downtown infrastructure, streetscape improvements, or incentives to business through incubator programs and facade grants.
Now, the DDA can take on those types of projects, plus enhance public art, parks, events and marketing on a grander scale. Snow removal, landscaping, holiday decorations and public amenities such as park benches and bike racks are typical projects for DDAs.
For years, volunteers and donations or city and BID funding covered planting flowers, weeding planters and putting up holiday decorations.
“This is definitely a huge step forward, and it’s going to put us on par with other cities like Holland that have a significant downtown development and promotion budget,” said Cindy Larsen, president of the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce and treasurer of Downtown Muskegon Now. “It is a very exciting time for the community to have sustainable funding that can manage important projects that will make a difference going forward.”
The DDA will actively work to make downtown a better place to live, work and visit, and that should lead to making it a better place to invest, Peterson said.
“We will be able to see a lot more organized development, a lot more concentrated effort to make the downtown more visible,” he said.
Right now, the DDA is focused on getting organizational structures in place, everything from a strategic plan to possibly a new name, mission statement and a sustainable budget, said Chair Martha Bottomley.
“We’re in a positive cash flow and it will allow us to continue the really nice things that have happened and do more for the whole community,” she said, adding the group wants to create some parameters around how the money will be spent.
The DDA also recently added two new board seats, filled by Doug Pollock and Brad Hastings, and appointed a new member to fill a vacancy. The additions change the dynamic of the board, and members are getting up to speed on the authority’s new roles and fiduciary responsibilities, according to Bottomley.
The Muskegon City Commission appoints DDA board members, but the board has autonomy regarding its budget and operations. Rather than forming an entirely new agency, the DDA board agreed to work with city government to provide oversight and support for human resources, legal services and administrative duties. The DDA will be added to one of the city’s divisions, such as planning or economic development, Peterson said.
Having learned from the consequences of the mall bonds, the DDA board does not plan to tie up its money on large or long-term projects, at least for now, Bottomley said. She anticipates the DDA will support fun activities downtown, beautification projects that make it more inviting, and retail and restaurant businesses in some capacity.
The DDA also has discussed taking over the new dog park and could look at projects such as adding and connecting sidewalks or expanding decorative street lamps.
“You’re increasing that continuity of a downtown without making a commitment for the next 10-15 years that all your money is going to project A,” she said.
The DDA’s boundaries are fairly large, from Fricano’s Event Center and Watermark 920 at one end of Western Avenue to Fisherman’s Landing on the other, and the Midtown area on Third Street. The DDA board also has agreed to address areas beyond Western Avenue, Bottomley said.
Since paying off the bonds in spring 2018, the DDA approved about $1 million for renovations at the LC Walker Arena. Those improvements included seating and concourse renovations, a pavilion and beer garden, Kids Zone, restroom updates and more club seats and social areas to improve the visitor experience.
Another project taking shape this spring is a new streetscape along Third Street from Muskegon to Mason avenues partially funded by DDA, city street money and some grants, Peterson said.
Under the current consolidation plan, Downtown Muskegon Now will cease operations and move its work into the DDA. Current Downtown Muskegon Now staff, including Executive Director Dave Alexander, will become city employees and report to the DDA, Peterson said.
Downtown Muskegon Now’s board supports the management consolidation for the area’s economic development, promotion and events, Alexander said. The DDA will serve as a bridge between the private, public and nonprofit sectors in encouraging development.
“I am thrilled we are going to more efficiently and effectively be spending resources to take Muskegon to new heights,” Alexander said.
Downtown Muskegon Now formed as a nonprofit to help with marketing downtown events. The organization existed on donations, event revenue and support from the city. It also provides administrative services for the Downtown Muskegon Business Improvement District and Downtown Muskegon Development Corp., which will continue to operate independently but may be managed by the DDA, Alexander said.
Details regarding branding, a website and transferring Downtown Muskegon Now’s social media following will be part of discussions in coming months after the transition is official.
“What we do is going to be pretty much the same, we’re just going to be able to do more of it in more significant ways,” Alexander said. “What is exciting is the DDA is bringing a whole new level of resources to downtown for the support of downtown Muskegon going forward.”
The DDA also plans to fund city staff who had been managing events like the Western Market, Muskegon Farmers Market, food truck rallies, and Taste of Muskegon. In addition, the DDA will play an expanded role in designing incentive packages to get projects off the ground, Peterson said. It’s too early to say what those will be or how much the DDA will earmark for various projects, he added.
Larsen said the Chamber, Downtown Muskegon Now and other downtown stakeholders have been waiting for this day for years. Many organizations, investors, philanthropists and volunteers stepped in to do the work of the DDA, Larsen said, noting the Chamber is excited to tackle different projects.
She foresees the DDA focusing on marketing, downtown enhancements and connecting businesses in the downtown to resources. Examples of specific projects might include more holiday decorations, You Are Here maps, seating areas and bike racks and outdoor fireplaces — generally anything that would enhance the downtown and attract more people and investment.
“Originally, the downtown redevelopment efforts were started with just a small pool of dollars,” Larsen said. “Everything was done by volunteers, including cleaning the streets and planting flowers and putting up holiday lights. This is so exciting that we will have a professional organization managing this important community asset.”