rustbelt road trip 2009

Flint

FLINT

Itinerary in Brief

Flint Club, Rhoda Matthews
University of Michigan’s LAUNCH Program, Joel Rash
Genesee County Land Bank, Dan Kildee and Jeff Burdick

Organization Descriptions

Flint Club: Flint Club connects people across boundaries and creates channels of action to people all across the country and around the world who are passionate about the City of Flint. We have done so by implementing programs and events to excite and create positive change in Flint, MI.

University of Michigan’s LAUNCH Program: Launch’s mission is connecting the resources of the University of Michigan-Flint and the community in order to promote local talent, support regional networks, advance national trends and explore international possibilities.  Launch is an open learning space focusing on youth, entrepreneurship, community and creativity.  The Launch Pad hosts a student business hatchery, workshops, networking seminars, community organziation meetings and more.

Genesee County Land Bank: Since its inception in 2002, the Genesee County Land Bank has taken the lead in applying the economic tools created under this new system by playing an active role in stabilizing neighborhoods and revitalizing the City of Flint and the surrounding areas. The Land Bank encourages re-use of more than 4,000 residential, commercial and industrial properties that it has acquired through the tax foreclosure process. This is accomplished through partnerships with public, private and non-profit partners as well as with the proceeds from the tax foreclosure process, proceeds from GCLB sales and rental programs, grants, loans, and bonds.

The Land Bank has 10 programs, Planning and Outreach, Brownfield Redevelopment, Development, Adopt-a-Lot, Clean and Green, Demolition, Housing Renovation, Sales, Side Lot Transfer and Foreclosure Prevention.

Reflection

When we drove into Flint, we pulled off to get to Steady Eddy‘s, a great café right above the Flint Farmers’ Market, before we got to see the downtown. There, we spoke with Rhoda Matthews of the Flint Club about the Flint Diaspora, race, and the city’s desire to become a “University” town. Afterwards, we headed to meet Joel Rash of University of Michigan, Flint’s LAUNCH program and avid downtown Flint promoter. On our walk down Saginaw Street, Flint’s main drag, we were lucky to run into and then meet with Dan Kildee, the County Treasurer and director of the Genesee County Land Bank. The Land Bank’s plan for vacant properties ties together much of what we saw in the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Flint was a big small town and one that got our group thinking: Can a city truly thrive with downtown redevelopment but major neighborhood instability and depopulation? What comes first?

Steady Eddy’s is the kind of place where they can spot an out of towner a mile away. The ten-table café above the farmers market had just two employees and our eight-top kept them working. Rhoda Matthews, of the Flint Club, suggested the location and we were glad she did. Flint born and raised, Rhoda works to connect folks passionate about the city of Flint by offering opportunities to engage in the community, build community assets, and promote Flint’s intellectual capital. Started by a group of Flinters in 2001, Flint Club now has over 1,000 members.

One of the many issues that we spoke to Rhoda as a Flint resident was her concern with the city’s plan to become a “university” town. The growing University of Michigan Flint has begun transforming itself into a predominantly commuter campus to a resident campus. With one residence hall already built and a second on the way (a local development group is renovating a former hotel), the city is on its way to a more robust student resident life in the downtown.

Downtown FlintThe downtown of Flint still has an iron archway over Saginaw Street: “Flint Vehicle City“—a reminder of what once was. Rhoda worries about Flint becoming a “university” town. “Flint was a wagon town, then a car town, and look where it is now.” Rhoda says, “Now, I don’t think Flint should be an ‘anything’ town—it needs to diversify its economy, not get just one thing to depend on or put all its eggs in one basket.”

In some ways, the plan to become a university town seems to be working. Clubs are all ages to draw in students and an abandoned “festival center” has been taken over by the University and was busy when we visited. Even at the end of May in the middle of the day, the downtown was bustling.

From speaking with Rhoda we went to the downtown to meet with its biggest advocate, Joel Rash. Joel heads up the LAUNCH program at University of Michigan Flint, which supports student owned and downtown businesses with grants and technical assistance. On top of LAUNCH and punk concert promoting, Joel has also bought up, rehabbed, and currently rents out several downtown spaces to thriving businesses.

Walking around talking to Joel, we found Flint’s informal spokesperson. Talking to Joel, you’d think we were in New York City. To be fair, Joel isn’t a blinded booster. He’s dedicated to the downtown but recognizes the challenges that come with it. Admitting that the downtown development and neighborhood concerns are, “a bit disconnected,” he goes on to explain that the downtown redevelopment will eventually build the neighborhoods as more students and faculty chose to stay in the city. Living in a nearby neighborhood himself, he is acutely aware of the vulnerabilities that can come with vacant properties one the block and has even considered buying them up so as to prevent further decay of his neighborhood. Chalk one more up to “Dedicated and Energetic People” category for the trip!

While we were walking down the street with Joel, we ran into Dan Kildee, Chairperson of the Genesee County Land Bank and County Treasurer. Dan took us to the Land Bank’s renovated building in downtown to talk about vacant property in Genesee County. It was here that the pieces of Flint’s future began coming together.

Through complicated and ingenious funding mechanisms that are models for land banks throughout the nation, the GCLB has acquired thousands of vacant properties—predominantly in the city of Flint. “We want the junk,” Kildee explained. GCLB has a host of ways to maintain and redevelop vacant land, including adopt-a-lot programs, side-lot, brownfield, and green infrastructure programs.

We also spoke to Jeff Burdick, GCLB’s neighborhood planner, who works side by side with neighbors and community groups to mitigate and preempt the effects of vacant land. GCLB agrees that there is a need for connecting downtown revitalization and neighborhood stability. To this end, GCLB is not just holding onto the land until the market stabilizes; it is active about the reuse and redevelopment of the properties and partners with neighbors to be effective. Standing over an enormous map of vacancies in the city along, Jeff explained that the goal of collaborating with community groups is a large in scope and nature but it is essential to the GCLB model. “There is not anyone riding in on the white horse here,” Dan says, “We have to fix our own community…Our future is entirely in our control.”

With a permanent funding mechanism, comprehensive vacant property database, and a host of projects, GCLB is a model for many counties dealing with large numbers of vacant parcels. It’s not a model that came easily. A web of state, county, and city statutes had to be revamped in order for this to occur—something that demands strong political will and policy changes on many levels. For this reason, many places could benefit from a similar policy may have a challenging role ahead. With mounting vacancies and a general public cognizant of the issues, now may be the perfect time to implement changes necessary for long-term, community support vision for vacant properties.

PHOTO GALLERY


RESOURCES

Flint Club

LAUNCH

Genesee County Land Bank

Steady Eddy


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