Exploring the Renaissance of DOWNTOWN BAY CITY

    icon Aug 24, 2017
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You’ve got to love it when a plan comes together.  As we sit in the Summer of 2017, even to a casual observer, this would seem to be exactly what is happening in Downtown Bay City.  

Like many mid-sized Midwestern urban settings, the Washington Street area that traditionally served as the city center had absorbed one gut punch after another for decades.  Populations shifted.  Shopping habits changed.  Investments went elsewhere.  The idea that downtowns were dead was increasingly easy to believe. 

But a funny thing happened on the way to the history book. A different type of believer appeared.  Where many communities looked mainly to Lansing, Washington or even the heavens above in hopes of finding a solution to their town’s woes, true to its working-class roots, Bay City just got to work. 

Candace Bales has had a front row seat for this process, serving for 14 years as the Executive Director of both the Bay City Downtown Management Board (DMB) and the Downtown Development Authority (DDA), twin organizations which help coordinate different types of economic activities in the “Washington Street” business district.

Bales is quick to credit both the business owners who have driven the current renaissance, as well as the evolving positive partnership with City Hall.

When speaking of the group of proprietors that operate the commercial concerns in the DMB / DDA area, Bales stated “We have a depth and passion in our business leaders.  Not only that, they know they are all stronger as a group.”

The Downtown Development Board is a coalition of business owners that mainly focuses on marketing and promotions for the area.  Events like Sidewalk Days and the Wine Walk are planned and executed by the DMB.  They also undertake tasks like emptying public trash containers.

The Downtown Development Authority is organized under a separate statute aimed at assisting economic growth.  It has more funding and has been involved in large projects like the repaving of downtown and improvements to the parks.  They are also responsible for parking enforcement in their zone.

Bales indicated that this group now comprises approximately 400 hundred businesses operating in the District, ranging from retail to professional services to non-profit agencies.

“Also, we never forget that we are part of the City.  The sidewalk is a City sidewalk.  The street is a City street.  In that way, downtown belongs to the people of Bay City.”

Local Owned, Owner Operated

Many readers will remember the old Spanky & Our Gang movies, where someone would say “Hey, kids!  Let’s throw a show!”

And then they threw a show.

It is that same ethic that is clearly present in Downtown Bay City.  In researching this article, I spoke to dozens of business owners about the economic development that we are witnessing.  This was an easy thing to do because so many of them are in their businesses daily, making friends, serving customers and fostering a spirit of co-operation that is palpable.

As Capri Wisniewski, owner of Half Mile Handmade (904 N Water St and inside City Market) put it, “It is so cool to do business here.  I get to connect with so many entrepreneurs. It feels good to do business this way.”

Rick Windt, who operates the GT Homestead Gift Shop (109 3rd St) has been at his location since 1998 and in 20 years has seen the surge firsthand.   As he pointed out, “Most of these businesses are small and privately owned.  It is nice to see that people see this as a place they can invest their money.”

Tondue Medical Spa (715 South Washington Avenue) owner, RN and Nurse Injector Roxanne Tondu agreed that a real community spirit has developed among the businesses in the district. Said Tondu, “We love being right in the heart of the action here in Downtown Bay City. There is always something new to see or shop, so it really is an exciting time to be here. I’ve been so inspired by the sense of community and support that the nearby business owners have for each other. It makes it such an inviting, fun environment for our clients and customers to visit and enjoy!”

Emily Socier, who partners with her father at Timothy’s Fine Cigars, echoed this sentiment. “The people that come in are not just our customers, they become friends and some are even like family.” 

Dan Harborth, who partnered with Mete Olgac, to revitalize Jake’s Corner Lounge (114 3rd St) feels that a focus on the customer and top-class service is helping a lot of businesses thrive in downtown. As he puts it, “Young people are looking for a place that accepts them, but they are still expecting good customer service. I learned when I worked at Old City Hall the importance of customer service and I have tried to bring that spirit into this business.”

David Nelsen, of Nelsen & Co, has been a fixture in Downtown for decades, first at Simmons Jewelers and now at his current location at 914 Washington Avenue.  As he stated “My family has been involved in Downtown for, more-or-less, a century.  I have seen all the ebbs and flows in Bay City.  This is really the best I have ever seen it.”

Bricks & Mortar Lifestyle

We have been hearing for some time that things like “bricks and mortar” are obsolete and “nobody wants to live downtown.” 

Someone apparently needs to inform Bay City property developer Jenifer Acosta of these “facts.” (https://www.jeniferacosta.com)

Since returning to the area approximately 4 years ago, Acosta has undertaken several high-profile projects, renovating underutilized “historic” buildings.  Mixing residential, retail and commercial space, these projects have attracted as much attention as any activity undertaken in the City in the last decade.

Acosta, whose family has deep roots in the area, described, “Bay City has the things that can make a City stable – the institutions of a downtown like education, arts, entertainment, parks.  These are all very attractive to people who might want to live in the City.”

Investors such as Acosta, her father Rod Hildebrandt and his partner Matthew Meehan have also been responsible for re-establishing the full footprint of the downtown with their projects.

Acosta elaborated on this point. 

“When I was a kid, a project had to be on Water Street if it was going to work.  Then it moved over to Saginaw Street, then Third Street, with the Star Bridge.  Now there is activity everywhere.  Adams.  Center.  Washington.  It’s happening all over town.”

Mayor Kathy Newsham is very appreciative of the efforts of private business people like Acosta, Hildebrandt, Meehan and the Rowley family. As she put it, “All of this is down to the vision of these private individuals.  They have an idea and they run with it.  It’s nice to have these personalities around town.”

Melissa Beckrow, of Ayre Rhinehart /Bay Realtors (200 3rd Street, Bay City), has a unique perspective on the area, as she is in her second stint as Downtown resident.  She has long been active in the “neighborhood,” as a business owner, property developer and, now, real estate broker. Beckrow is clear for her love of the Downtown area and the lifestyle it affords.   “It is walkable.  It’s safe.  You can walk to dinner, for entertainment, to work or to shop.  Plus, we have parks, the river and such great scenery.”

When asked what the biggest change was to Downtown in her time with the DMB / DDA, Candace Bales offered that it was the number of people residing downtown, and the high quality of the properties that have been built or refurbished.

By Beckrow’s rough count, nearly 200 new residents have moved into this Downtown area over the last 10 years, based on the number of new developments and the remaining lofts and flats that have traditionally housed people who long for life without a lawnmower.

In urban development, they like to throw around big words like “gentrification.”  If you don’t know that word off the top of your head, you could go look it up online, or you could just think of what has happened in Downtown Bay City in the last 10 years and have a pretty good definition in mind. The transformation for a real estate perspective alone has been commendable.

Honeymoon in Bay City?  Sweet.

If there is one phenomenon that could confirm that Bay City has turned a corner, it might be the increase in the number people on social media who are indicating that they plan to take their honeymoon or another special trip to Bay City. 

Mayor Newsham agreed that she also sees this trend, mainly through the increased number of requests that she gets to perform marriage ceremonies, one of her favorite duties as Mayor. “We are getting a lot of requests from people to marry them, both local people and from out of town.  We just have so many beautiful locations.”

Bay City has always fancied itself a tourist spot, but it is only recently that the upscale type of day tripper or traveler that every destination seeks have begun to agree in droves.

When asked about the increased traffic from tourists, Windt of GT Homestead said, “There is so much diversity downtown and in Bay City.  There are a lot of things to do here if you want to come to town and spend awhile.”

Avram Golden, who owns Golden Gallery & Custom Framing has operated his location at 113 3rd St for the last 14 years.   Golden has been a key organizer in many projects that have improved the aesthetics of Downtown that have proven so attractive to those visiting the area.  Whether it is the new flags that fly from poles throughout the DDA / DMB area, the 3rd Street Star Bridge project or his photos and framed prints hanging in homes and businesses throughout the community, Golden has been a great example of the initiative it takes to engender co-operation in getting these projects done.

Golden won’t take much credit for these efforts, instead pointing to regional and local efforts that have created the environment he operates in. 

“Over the years we have seen a real increase in the amount of co-operation.  Everybody is trying to do their part to make this a strong region. It’s not just Bay City, we try to work together with other cities and other organizations to make this a great place to visit.”

He went on to confirm the sentiments of Mayor Newsham that we have to be thankful for the dedicated local investors who are putting their money into projects that will benefit the city. As he points out, developers like Hildebrandt and Meehan have put more than $25 million in commercial ventures in Bay City over the last several years, including a donation of $100,000 for much needed repairs at the historic Masonic Temple.

Said Golden, “They didn’t have to do that.” But they did. And that is how things are getting done in Bay City these days.

Spanky and Alfalfa would be proud.

Hear the Roar

Forget Madonna; give the key to the city to Helen Reddy. Forgive a moonlighting music critic, but as I interviewed people for this piece, Reddy’s 1970’s anthem “I Am Woman” spun through my head as I couldn’t help but he struck by one obvious fact: This local revolution has a host of dynamic women assuming key leadership roles.

In Bay City, the Mayor is a woman.  The new City Manager is a woman.  The highest profile real estate developer is a woman.  The list goes on.

While we obviously have our share of very successful men in Bay City who have contributed to the current vibrant culture, this observation simply felt worth reporting.

As one business owner, who did not want to be quoted by name, indicated, “I don’t ever really think in terms of gender.  I just assume men or women can do anything if they want it bad enough.”

Bay City is a case study that shows that can be true.

When you look at entrepreneurs like Lyndsey Edmunds, who now owns three downtown businesses: Harless & Hugh Coffee House, Harless & Hugh Flea and the Public House, or Terri King, who operates My Secret Garden, you are talking about new cornerstones of the business community who set the standard for many of the other businesses operating in the market.

There are probably a lot of reasons for this phenomenon.  Fields like retail and real estate have long had a strong female presence, but really it is more than that.

When you talk to the women who are such an important part of the Downtown business community, you feel some very vital attributes: passion, dedication, ingenuity, hard work. You are also seeing the results of a couple of generations of women who have grown up that their gender does not imply any built-in limitations. 

As the son of a female entrepreneur and the father of two very ambitious daughters, I have known for a long time that women rock.  And Bay City is a rocking town in large part due to a fantastic collection of smart and talented women who have helped make our town worth calling home.

Modeled by Citizens

This is a very important point in considering where Bay City is in its redevelopment and the role the Downtown business district plays.  The most important thing that a town needs is a reason to live there.  The businesses operating in Downtown are providing just that.   They provide jobs, both directly and indirectly through contractors, professional services and vendors.  They give us a diversion – an actual activity to do.  They help create a community identity.  They give inspiration to others to put out their shingle and see if they can make it as a business person, too. 

Bay City is not a place without challenges, but it is a place looking for solutions. 

When you are solving a difficult problem, sometimes it is helpful to model your solution on something that has already worked.  When you are trying to get ahead, sometimes it is easiest if you find a role model, possibly even a mentor who helps you duplicate their success in your own endeavors.

Whether you live in Bay City or in one of the other communities in the area, if you are the kind of person who cares enough about your community to improve it, there is a lot to learn from the story of downtown Bay City and the individuals who are fueling this current re-birth.

Some of the potential lessons here?  Nothing happens overnight.  There is no substitute for your own sweat.  There is more money in co-operation than in competition.  Tipping points are real.  I could list more.

But, honestly, the biggest lesson in the latest chapter in the history of the Downtown Bay City is that the most valuable currency in America is Community Pride.  And the best thing about it is the more of it you spend, the more it multiplies.  And you can “print” your own by caring.  It’s every bit as great as it sounds. 




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