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Published in Economic Development
Upgrades planned at Rowan Park in Muskegon Heights are part of a downtown revisioning plan. Upgrades planned at Rowan Park in Muskegon Heights are part of a downtown revisioning plan. PHOTO BY KATE CARLSON

Muskegon Heights aims for downtown ‘renaissance’ with vision plan

BY Sunday, July 17, 2022 06:24pm

MUSKEGON HEIGHTS — Muskegon Heights leaders plan to convert the vacant storefronts, run-down historic theater and barren park in the city’s downtown into a thriving corridor reminiscent of past decades before population and revenue loss. 

Last month, the city’s downtown development authority approved the “Reaching New Heights” vision plan, which was created after 18 months of gathering feedback from residents and business owners. 

Formed in partnership with Greater Muskegon Economic Development (GMED), the vision document includes redevelopment plans for the Strand Theatre and Rowan Park, installing new pavement and streetscaping along Broadway Avenue, and constructing more housing and mixed-use developments downtown.

“No community comes back and creates a renaissance without reinvigorating their downtown corridor,” Muskegon Heights City Manager Troy Bell said during a recent visit to the theater. “We want the Strand Theatre and Rowan Park to be the catalyst to create that restoration and renaissance here in Muskegon.”

Funding sources are still being identified through state and federal grant programs as well as private investors for all of the projects in the Reaching New Heights plan, which seeks to give developers a clear idea of the community’s priorities, Bell said. 

Strand Theatre

Once home to a popular theater, the three-story brick building at 22 E. Broadway Ave. was built in the 1920s but ceased operations in 1990. Businesses also had storefronts in the building, along with apartment units on the second and third floors.

Historically, the Strand building was a place for people across Muskegon County to congregate and drew foot traffic for downtown restaurants, bars and retailers. Today, estimates to restore the crumbling building are about $15 million while demolishing it and building a new structure would cost about $13 million, Bell said.

“The building has significant historical value to the community, and I think the important thing is to make sure we recognize that value,” Bell said. “Nobody wants to tear this down and put in a parking lot or a car dealership. As we work to bring this back, I believe you’ll see the heartbeat of this community resurge.”

Restoring the Strand or demolishing it for a new structure hinges on whether Muskegon Heights receives state funding to repave Broadway Avenue, Bell said. The $8 million allocation to repave the downtown street did not make it into a recent budget deal reached between Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and lawmakers. Local officials hope the funding is included in the supplemental budget process, which could be decided later this year.

Redevelopment plans for the theater also coincide with upgrading the adjacent Rowan Park. A splash pad will be installed for use during summers and transition into an ice skating area in the winter.

Muskegon Heights native Kimberly Sims has always supported saving the Strand. The former Muskegon Heights mayor sees real promise in the Reaching New Heights vision plan and the fact that the Strand is a large focus of the redevelopment effort. 

“People want to see the revitalization of that building,” Sims said. “That could be the catalyst that would bring everybody together. It was a piece of the community that ties the county together. Seeing that (in the vision plan) was what most excited me.”

Sims owns a small event venue downtown called Mahali, which hosts about four or five events a month, she said. The business was initially intended to serve as an incubator for small businesses, but it has been operating as an event space for gatherings such as baby showers, fundraisers and office meetings.

Mahali and other downtown business owners need help, but they are also willing to do the work to help make their businesses and downtown successful, Sims said. The vision plan will help focus everyone to work toward a common goal, she added.

“We’re here because we want to be,” Sims said. “We chose to be here. Many of us have stayed the long haul. We want to see downtown prosper, but we didn’t have a vision. Everybody just had a whole bunch of different, good ideas. But a vision helps us put a plan out there and lay structure to get things done. That’s what we were lacking. Now we’ve got it and we can start to build.”

Housing

Another major focus of the vision plan is to add more housing downtown and throughout the city. Muskegon Heights needs to add 175 homes to the city each year for the next 10 years to keep up with demand, according to a recent housing analysis. 

“We need to have people who choose to locate in downtown Muskegon Heights,” Sims said. “I have apartments upstairs (above Mahali) and young people are starting to look at them again, which I think is really cool.”

A new house has not been built in the city in the past 17 years, but construction is set to begin on a few homes on city-owned land in the next few weeks, Bell said.

“There are many favorite sons and daughters that have grown up here and moved to other areas and want to move back, but not many millennials want fixer-uppers,” Bell said. “So they have been crying for us to begin to build turnkey, brand new houses and that’s what we’re beginning to do.”

City officials are also working to incentivize developers to come build homes on roughly 1,000 vacant lots in Muskegon Heights. Developers who want to build in the Heights have to offer down payment assistance to homebuyers, credit repair and home ownership mentorship, Bell said.

The latest U.S. Census Bureau data shows 4,534 housing units throughout the city, and most homes are worth less than $50,000. 

“Those three pieces are focused on transitioning renters into homeowners,” Bell said. “The people who have put their blood, sweat and tears now get to be part of the prosperity that is occurring and the transition from paying someone else’s mortgage to being a homeowner.”

Rich culture, history of disinvestment

After a long history of industrial activity, Muskegon Heights has failed to recover from economic declines in recent decades, including the Great Recession.

The Heights is nestled between U.S. 131 and the Lake Michigan lakeshore, immediately south of the city of Muskegon. With a population of just under 11,000 people, the Heights’ demographics stand in stark contrast to some neighboring communities. Its roughly 35 percent poverty rate is more than triple than the rate in nearby Norton Shores.

Muskegon Heights’ population has steadily declined over the past six decades from a high of nearly 20,000 in the 1960s, while the demographic makeup of the town is overwhelmingly Black and African-American. The median household income in the Heights is $31,431, well below the statewide average of $59,234, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“Other communities around here have seen reinvestment faster than Muskegon Heights,” Bell said. “It’s one of the challenges of a majority minority community. The return on investing in other affluent communities is a lot higher, so investment in a community like this has less of a return and is slower to come.”

However, the presence of once-thriving downtown means that the city’s vision plan doesn’t have to start from scratch, said GMED Economic Development Coordinator Contessa Hood.

“What is so unique about Muskegon Heights is that they have an intact downtown,” Hood said. “The bones and the structure are here, we just need to be developed and it needs some streetscaping.”

While Hood was conducting surveys and talking to local businesses, community members and students to form the vision plan, she noted numerous requests to add more art and music downtown.

“That just speaks to how big our culture is in this area and how prideful the residents are,” Hood said. “Music and theater was something that always stuck out. We also heard it in the high school — they want to see murals and art that look like them and be able to go to a concert in town.”

Some of these wishes will be honored with a bronze art installation at Rowan Park titled “Band Together,” which will recognize the rich history of the Muskegon Heights High School marching band.

“There is just so much culture here,” Hood said. “Downtown Muskegon was a ghost town not long ago, but now it’s really thriving. Muskegon Heights is next up.” 

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