Muskegon’s approach to development is landing the city major praise. Where does it go from here?

Strong Towns Founder and President Charles Marohn, left, presents Muskegon Mayor Stephen Gawron with a Strongest Towns contest plaque.

What makes Muskegon a strong town?

For the leader of a national nonprofit organization that studies sustainable development in communities across the United States, it is, of course, a multilayered answer, but it has much to do with growth that is slow and steady. Think: more support for mom-and-pop shops and less huge, glitzy development.

“You’re doing a great job, you’ve got a lot to be proud of, this is a great place to live, and it’s getting a lot better,” Charles Marohn, president of the Strong Towns nonprofit that recently designated Muskegon as the winner of its 2018 Strongest Towns contest, said at Hackley Park Wednesday, Aug. 22.

During his trip to Muskegon this week, Marohn, an engineer and planning expert who has been named one of the top 10 most influential urbanists on the planet, held what his organization calls a “curbside chat,” which is part of a community engagement initiative he and his organization have brought to cities and towns throughout the country. At Hackley Park, he addressed a crowd of elected officials, business and civic leaders, and residents about both the decline and growth of U.S. cities and the reasons behind communities’ financial woes—which, for Marohn, are rooted in development that values short-term gains over long-term growth. His visit follows Muskegon winning the third annual Strongest Town contest in April, topping about 35 other cities in the competition, including Annapolis, Maryland; Greenville, South Carolina; and Kent, Ohio.

The contest recognizes the country’s “most sustainable and resilient communities,” according to a statement from the nonprofit.

“Muskegon shone from the beginning with an initial application that touted the community’s enthusiastic strong citizen spirit, its wildly successful…farmers market, its commitment to rebuilding its downtown, and the many ways in which the town makes good use of its active Lake Michigan waterfront,” Strong Towns said in a statement announcing Muskegon as the winner.

In round two of the contest, “Muskegon highlighted new residential developments that are creating greater housing options for people of all ages and family sizes,” as well as “talked about the cruise ships that recently began stopping in Muskegon and their economic engagement with those visitors. Muskegon applicants also discussed the work they’re doing to fill vacant lots and increase small business opportunities.”

During his talk Wednesday evening, Marohn emphasized the important role projects like the Western Market chalets can play in growing a sustainable, diverse economy that provides support for area business to flourish. In 2017, 15 locally-owned businesses opened in a row of small shops, known as chalets, along Western Avenue, with each business owner renting the pedestrian-friendly space in the heart of downtown for $1,325 to $2,125 for a season that runs from May to December. Those 15 businesses have grown to 17 this year.

The Western Market chalets. Photo via the Western Market’s Facebook page.

The Western Market “really starts to capture the essence of what building a strong town is,” Marohn said. “Our staff, our membership, and all the people who voted in the contest were deeply impressed with what you’re doing.”

“How do we leverage the small amount of stuff we have for potentially huge gains?” he continued. “You’ve created new businesses; you’ve created a lot of vitality. If you can take this mentality of starting small and export it from that little stretch to the rest of the city, you’ll see magical things happen.”

This story of incremental growth and strong support for the local community is one that should be replicated in cities and towns across the country, as well as within Muskegon itself, the nonprofit’s leader stressed.

“We have spent decades and decades doing huge, mega projects for instant success,” Marohn said of general development in the United States. “Your downtown mall was that mentality…What we actually see in practice is when we have the discipline to do the small, iterative things, those are the things that are transformative.”

It is when “we can humble ourselves” and focus on development to address “where people are struggling” that growth can be sustainable and truly change a community for the better, he said.

“Not only can cities learn from you around the country, but you can take [the Western Market idea] into other parts of your city,” Marohn said.

A crowd listens to Marohn speak at Hackley Park.

In general, Muskegon is “doing things right,” the nonprofit founder and president said. For everyone from the mayor to chalet owners, this is a welcome message in a city that has gone from facing a widely abandoned downtown following the Muskegon Mall’s demise in 2001 to a city center that is, once again, bustling with activity.

“It’s a really beautiful thing when you get another set of eyes looking at your hometown,” Mayor Stephen Gawron said during Wednesday night’s forum. “So many of us are involved in sustaining Muskegon…What a refreshing thing it is for someone to come into our home and tell us he really loves the curtains.”

Muskegon’s transformation is one which other post-industrial towns are watching: it is a story of a city that has ridden, and survived, often extreme economic highs and lows—of booms that made Muskegon once home to more millionaires than anywhere else in the country to declines that left it with some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the county faced a jobless rate hovering around 20 percent. To rejuvenate a sinking economy, the city razed much of the downtown and replaced its historic structures with the Muskegon Mall, a vast indoor shopping complex that opened in 1976 and covered eight downtown blocks spanning 23 acres. While the venture served as a major commercial hub for years, it eventually shuttered in December 2001 following the opening of The Lakes Mall in Fruitport Township. By the time the Muskegon Mall closed, almost all of the retail had departed the downtown area, leaving in its wake abandoned buildings and a nonexistent street system where the mall once stood.

More than $200 million has been poured into downtown Muskegon since 2002, just after the Muskegon Mall closed.

But that has changed—and dramatically. Since the mall’s closure, more than $200 million has been poured into downtown Muskegon, and Western Avenue has gone from being an unpaved road to the home of a string of new establishments, from Pigeon Hill and Unruly Brewing to 18th Amendment, the boutique shops inside the Century Club Retail Center, and the Red Lotus Art Gallery, also inside the Century Club. The Frauenthal Center on Western Avenue is drawing nationally acclaimed acts, Baker College’s Culinary Institute of Michigan is helping to transform the area’s culinary landscape, residential units are being built downtown, Muskegon Community College has opened its downtown campus, Hemisphere Design Works (the largest kayak manufacturer in the world) opened its headquarters in the city in January 2018, and a $15 million convention center is slated to open next to the L.C. Walker Arena.

“Muskegon has come so far in recent years,” Muskegon Chamber of Commerce President Cindy Larsen said in a previous press release. “It is great for the residents to receive this recognition. Strong Towns isn’t about one project or one person, it’s about everyone chipping in to move a community forward. Anyone who visits will see that Muskegon truly is a strong town and has set the framework to be successful for the next generation.”

So, all that said, where does Muskegon go from here? Much of that answer lies in the city’s ability to address residents’ needs and meet them. While these projects can take time—officials have get out into the communities they serve and talk to the people living and working in them in order to determine where people are hurting and how to address that, Marohn said—they often can be fairly inexpensive once they’re identified. For example, Marohn noted he and a group of colleagues spent a year studying a neighborhood in decline in his hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota, where Strong Towns is based.

“We spent days just walking the neighborhood and talking to people,” he said. “We went out and set up a desk in a parking lot to talk to people…After a year of observing where people struggle and asking ourselves what are the things we could do, we came up with eight projects the city could do to reverse the decline in this neighborhood.”

Those eight projects included fairly low-budget items, from planting trees to reconfiguring streets to slow traffic and increase pedestrian activity.

“Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb; innovation from the bottom to the top tends to be chaotic but smart,” Marohn said. “…We have an overwhelmingly strong preference for order over chaos. We’ll accept a whole lot of dumb to accept order.”

In other words: Development without input from the people is, well, not so smart. Those in power need to listen to the residents, the ones who have lived in the city for decades, the one who may be struggling to make ends meet. Listen. Figure out how to partner with them. And then act.

Anna Gustafson is the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with her by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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