Despite bad press about the water debacle, Flint is making a comeback; and its supporters have been vocal about their city’s progress.
The University of Michigan, Flint campus, has been instrumental in the city’s struggle for transformation. Chancellor Susan Borrego is among its Flint’s cheerleaders; in fact, she relocated to the area from California in 2014 to be part of the positive energy she observed.
“One of the reasons I came was that the University of Michigan did not identify (its Flint campus) as a revenue generator, but an education hub,” she said. In other words, the university is committed to bettering the city through higher education and economic development projects while not necessarily looking at the bottom line.
Founded in 1956 on a commitment to bring a quality Michigan education to Flint and the surrounding area, the satellite has been well received.
“This is a community that’s both proud of the university and wants it to be successful,” she said. “It’s a community that made things happen.”
UM-Flint has been an anchor in the community and plans to keep the momentum going. In her words, “we’re right in the thick of things.”
One case in point is UM-Flint’s front-facing approach to the water crisis. With an April 21 statement from the university, the campus made it known that university researchers had joined an initiative to “ensure community needs stay at the forefront in current and future research efforts in the Flint community.” That initiative, the Healthy Flint Research Coordinating Center, brought together Flint’s Community Based Organization Partners, the University of Michigan-Flint, the University of Michigan Ann Arbor and Michigan State University.
UM-Flint also positioned itself as a leader in crisis communications. A partnership between Google and the UM-Flint and Ann Arbor campuses provided a smartphone app and other digital tools to Flint residents and officials to help them manage the ongoing crisis. Made possible by a $150,000 grant from Google, the tools predict where lead levels will be highest in the city’s water, making the crisis easier to navigate for those affected.
While all eyes were on Flint during this contentious time, Borrego said she was cautious about keeping the end game in sight.
“It was important to find ways to include a parallel narrative,” she said. “We still needed to recruit students at the same time (as the water crisis).”
She pointed to 2015 as a significant year for the institution. In December UM-Flint received one of the largest donations in its history: a 16-story building featuring academic space, student housing and a conference center. Uptown Reinvestment Corporation donated the 340,000-square-foot Riverfront Residence Hall & Banquet Center to the university. Subsequent renovations were made possible by $27 million in repayable grants awarded by the Mott Foundation to URC’s affiliate, the Foundation for the Uptown Reinvestment Corporation. The Mott Foundation is waiving the balance of those repayable grants to allow URC to transfer the property to UM-Flint.
That same month the university reopened the downtown Flint ice rink. According to Borrego, the move was another win for the university’s image. Attracting people to the downtown means they might be inclined to visit the UM campus, a technique that can boost enrollment. Two months prior, the university had announced that it had been authorized to purchase a portion of FirstMerit Bank’s downtown Flint complex, which will allow for the first major expansion of the campus since the addition of on-campus housing in 2008.
Then, in the summer of 2015, the university added some color to the downtown — quite literally. UM-Flint and the downtown area both received a boost from the painting of historic University Pavilion, a complex that had closed after suffering unsuccessful attempts to attract visitors to its festival marketplace. In a statement, the university said the leaders of both entities viewed the paint rehab plan as a positive — a way to “extend the university’s reach downtown and add stability to the area.”
Looking to the future, Borrego hopes the university will continue to play a pivotal role in Flint’s resurgence. “As partners in the community, it’s important that we’re engaging in research questions that enhance the quality of life (of the region).”
The Flint Farmers’ Market has also been praised for its contributions to local quality of life issues and is considered one of the top markets in the nation.
The original Flint Farmers’ Market opened in 1905. From 1940–2014 it opened each year in the same location northeast of downtown; two years ago it relocated back to the heart of the city.
A year-round public market with 50 vendors inside the building, it offers produce, meat, poultry, breads and baked goods, cheese, a wine shop, art gallery, cafe, Middle- Eastern and Mexican groceries and many unique gifts. Outside, from May through October, 25 produce and flower vendors set up in the pavilion. On Saturdays 15–20 art and craft vendors join them.
But the market is more than a transaction experience: There are educational and outreach components in place. Through a grant from the Ruth Mott Foundation, the entity partnered with Michigan State Extension and the Genesee Intermediate School District to combine nutritional education with supplemental SNAP benefits during the summer of 2010. That pilot program proved extremely successful and has been reintroduced.
The market is also investing in the future of agriculture. Three programs have received federal grants to build hoop houses, and the market provides them with rent-free space to sell their products. It has another agenda as well: fostering economic development by supporting entrepreneurs. Like no other in the Midwest, the Flint Farmers’ Market has a state-of-the-art demonstration kitchen, rentable commercial kitchen, an incubator kitchen program called Flint Food Works and community rooms for private and public events — all under one roof.
BY THE NUMBERS
- The Flint & Gennesse Chamber of Commerce is bullish on the future of the city. Senior Communications Manager Bob Campbell provided the following 2015 year-end statistics from the organization’s annual meeting:
- Last year the city supported more than $1 BILLION in total investment and contract value
- 42 investment projects generated an estimated $338 million in annual payroll
- 3,471 jobs were created and retained
- 32 retention/expansion investment projects and 10 attraction investment projects were initiated in Genesee County
- 1,149 GOVERNMENT CONTRACTS were won, with assistance from the chamber’s Procurement and Technical Assistance Center; 511 companies were counseled
- $129 MILLION IN TOURISM economic impact was incurred due to overnight hotel room rentals in Genesee County. Lodging revenue rose 7.8 percent, with occupancy at 54.3 percent
- The county unemployment rate declined to 5.8 PERCENT, compared to 7.8 percent in 2014. The city of Flint and Genesee County annual average unemployment rates are the lowest since 2000.
- Flint’s unemployment rate was 8.5 PERCENT in December 2015. While it’s not where officials would like, it’s the lowest of the year and the best in 14 years.
- The Flint Farmers’ Market has become a true anchor in the downtown area. It is exceeding expectations and has tripled its foot traffic, seeing 750,000 PATRONS the first year since its relocation.