Michigan’s Comeback Cities: Detroit. Flint & Frankenmuth


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The declining auto industry, corrupt leadership, high unemployment, poverty, a failing economy, plunging property values – all played a part in what some feared might be the final curtain for the drama that was Detroit. The fifth largest city in the United States in 1950. A twist in the plot brought Detroit to bankruptcy and emergency management in 2013.


Now the scene is changing. In 2010 billionaire Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures, moved his headquarters from the Detroit suburbs to the city. He began buying and renovating and building and becoming a key cog in Detroit’s wheel of renewal.

The new economic model continued to shift the focus from automotive to technology. Local startups sprouted. People who left during the decline returned, and residents new to the city joined them. Offices, retail shops, grocers, restaurants, bars, renovated and new residential structures, and urban farms made their home in the city and prospered.  Just last month, Ford Motor Company purchased the long-empty Michigan Central Station. Add Mayor Mike Duggan’s focus to reinvigorate municipal services and Chris Ilitch’s investment to build the Little Caesar’s Arena and develop the 50-block district surrounding the arena. And credit the thought-leadership and financial contributions of philanthropists.

Photo credit: photo/video © Brian W. Schaller / License: FAL 1.3


Photo credit: Olympia Entertainment



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Detroit’s Downtown and Midtown are well on their way. Recovery is coming much slower to neighborhoods outside the city center, but that focus is not forgotten, and renewal is underway in neighborhoods like Brush Park. An improved mass transit system is also high on Detroit’s list.

Detroit offers something for everyone. Established venues like the Fox Theatre, Detroit Opera House, Fisher Theatre and dozens of other performance venues bring Broadway and other national, international and regional talent to the stage. The Greektown Historic District, one of Detroit’s last surviving Victorian-era commercial streetscapes continues to thrive.

One of only 10 cities across the United States to be home to four major sports teams, Detroit welcomed the Little Caesars Arena in 2017. The District Detroit multi-purpose venue is home to the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Pistons, and hosts a wealth of other sports and entertainment events, concerts, family shows and community functions. Greektown Casino Hotel, MotorCity Casino Hotel and MGM Grand Detroit are all bringing their game.

Just a few of the multitude who are new to the comeback …

Photo credit: Shinola Detroit
Photo credit: wheelhousedetroit.com

Fossil founder Tom Kartsotis launched Shinola in 2011, moving the factory and a retail store to Midtown Detroit in 2013. The brand is known for its high-end timepieces, bicycles and leather products.


Wheelhouse Detroit opened it retail bike shops (Detroit Riverfront and Hamtramck) in 2008 and leads 22 themed/neighborhood bike tours for adults. They also rent bikes to those interested in an independent adventure.

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Eastern Market, one of the nation’s largest outdoor marketplaces since the 1800s, isn’t new to the city’s comeback, but has experienced millions of dollars of upgrades in recent years. Detroit’s 2017/2018 Outdoor Winter Markets, located in four locations across the city, were so popular and successful that they have been brought back for summer 2018.

Between 2013 and the spring of 2017, Midtown Detroit added nearly 150 new businesses and 1,500 new residents. A once-crumbling Victorian on the corner of Third Avenue and Alexandrine reopened in 2016 as El Moore. Rainer Court, a dilapidated apartment building built in the 1920s on Alexandrine Street was extensively renovated and reopened in 2015. Residents and business owners alike note that the neighborhood is once again developing a sense of community.

photo credits: Blossoms Facebook page

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Norman Silk, who opened Blossoms flower shop with Dale Morgan in Midtown in the late 1970s, moved the business to the suburbs in the early 1990s due to Midtown’s escalating crime rate and economic distress. However, he watched the city’s renewal take hold and moved Blossoms back to Midtown in 2016.

“You walk up and down this block, and these places are owned by real people,” he says. “This neighborhood is authentic, and it’s real.” (Forbes.com; JPMorgan Chase Voice; June 2, 2017; “America’s Comeback City: The Rebirth of Detroit”)



Photo credit: Michigan Municipal League


According to CNN, there were 46,000 manufacturing workers in Flint in 1996 … but only 12,400 in 2016. Flint, the birthplace of General Motors, joined Detroit and other cities in America’s Rust Belt that have experienced a slow recovery after the Great Recession as they deal with a post-industrial economy. And although Flint, like Detroit, has continued work to do, the city has, like Detroit, made great strides in turning the tide.

The Flint Water Crisis contributed to the city’s challenges when in 2014 Flint’s water source was switched to the Flint River. Pipes corroded from improperly treated river water, and lead leached from the damaged pipes into the city’s tap water, causing health problems for many residents. The water source was switched back to the Detroit River. Pipe replacement and infrastructure upgrades continue and are anticipated to be completed in late 2019 or 2020. The city’s water began testing well below the federal safety standard for lead of 15 parts per billion in September 2017.

In January 2018, Flint was released from emergency management. The city’s time is now to continue to move forward.

Photo credit: flintandgenesee.org

Like Detroit, Flint is anchored by established venues: The Whiting, Flint Institute of Arts, Sloan Museum, Longway Planetarium, Crossroads Village and Huckleberry Railroad, Dort Event Center (home of the Flint Firebirds – Ontario Hockey League) and more. The HAP Crim Festival of Races has drawn regional, national and international runners to the starting line since the 1970s. Flint’s Back to the Bricks auto show stepped on the gas in 2005 along the city’s historic, downtown, brick-paved Saginaw Street and continues to rev the engines of thousands of classic car lovers each year.

Universities and hospitals play an important role in doctoring Flint’s economic recovery. The downtown campuses of U of M Flint and the MSU College of Human Medicine, which expanded its programs in 2014, join Mott Community College, Baker College and Kettering University in bringing training to an evolving Flint workforce.

Photo credit: MSU College of Human Medicine Flint Campus


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Michigan and the world are eyeing Flint’s urban regeneration. What’s new to the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods?

photo credits: The Ferris Wheel Facebook page

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John Gazall of Gazall, Lewis & Associates, based in Flint, told Curbed.com in 2017 that the nonprofit Uptown Reinvestment Corporation, begun in 2001, is the “Dan Gilbert of Flint.” The corporation drove projects that delivered loft apartments, office spaces/innovation hubs/coworking spaces like The Ferris Wheel, restaurants and more to the city center.


The relocation of the Flint Farmers Market downtown just across from the U of M Flint campus sprouted more than double the market attendance in just a few years.


Photo credit: Flint Farmers Market Facebook page


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The commitment of locals to the regeneration of the city is clear. Take Flint native Josh Spencer, owner of The Spencer Agency. Spencer purchased the former Brown Sugar Cafe in 2013 and transformed the property into Rhema Cafe, a Roaring 20s-themed coffee shop and meeting place. The cafe is decorated with locally-found antiques. “I wanted things that were local and would give the shop a sense of Flint history,” Spencer told MyCity Magazine in 2017.

Photo credit: Cafe Rhema Facebook page


The diamond in downtown Flint’s jewel coffer is the restored and renovated 1920s Italian Renaissance Capitol Theatre. Originally a vaudeville venue, the theatre hosted movies and concerts before closing in the late 1990s. The Capitol Theatre is managed by The Whiting. Programming includes popular and classical music, comedy acts, film screenings, contemporary and modern dance, spoken word, and theater works.


photo credits: The Capitol Theatre Facebook page





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Bringing renewal to neighborhoods outside the city center and to underdeveloped commercial corridors is a common challenge to cities in the renewal process. Flint has begun to address that issue with the new Factory Two community makerspace in Carriage Town.

Photo credit: Factory Two Facebook page


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Folks don’t normally think of Frankenmuth as a comeback city … unless they experienced the EF3 tornado that struck June 21, 1996.

Photo credit: bronnerconstruction.com, repairs to St. Lorenz Church

According to the National Weather Service, the 1996 tornado was the strongest in Saginaw County since 1950. The EF3 tornado, with wind speeds of 136 to 165 miles per hour, destroyed four homes and damaged about 130 other homes and businesses. The damage total reached over $5 million.  At its widest, the destructive path of the tornado was 1000 feet wide, and it wreaked havoc for one mile. Fortunately, no fatalities occurred and only one person was injured according to reports.


The Frankenmuth business that suffered the most damage was the Frankenmuth Brewery, originated as the Cass River Brewery in 1862. Wrecking crews came on August 30, 1996, and dismantled everything but the brew house.

Photo credit: Frankenmuth Brewery
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“But as one of the nation’s oldest microbreweries, we simply couldn’t do anything but rebuild, move on, and take Michigan beer inspiration from the tornado. Taking something devastating and turning it into something delicious, our Black Tornado IPA has a smoky, chocolate taste and is eminently drinkable.” (Frankenmuth Brewery website)

The brew house and restaurant reopened in 2003. It closed from 2003 to 2006 due to financing issues but reopened in 2009 with new owners at the helm. Today the brewery and restaurant offers banquet space and menus for special events in addition to bar and restaurant space. A gift shop is also open onsite. The Brewery’s mascot, Frankie the Dachshund, was the top dog of early owner John Geyer, and has appeared in Brewery packaging, signs and ads since the 1930s.


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