After facing challenges during the 2008 recession and its aftermath, the Great Lakes Bay Region is renewing its economy—and the revitalization is happening from within. Many different people and initiatives are strengthening the area, and the future is bright.
Brothers Peter Shaheen and Dr. Samuel Shaheen of Shaheen Development, the Hall family of Hall Commercial Properties, husband and wife Paul and Peggy Rowley and daughter Mitzi Dimitroff, and CBS Television Vice President of Finance and Saginaw native David Strouse are among the local property owners and developers rehabilitating historic buildings into thriving residential and commercial businesses. They receive assistance from local economic development corporations, which also work to retain and grow existing companies.
Beyond the personal and financial benefits to these developers, they’re responding to the demands of both employers and professionals for increased manufacturing, for added options for living space, and for more urban, “walkable” communities. And they’re driven by a desire to give back and strengthen the communities they call home.
Today, the region’s oldest and largest county is facing one primary economic development challenge: finding room for business growth. According to JoAnn Crary, CEcD, president of Saginaw Future, Saginaw businesses are scaling up in a big way. “In Saginaw, we’ve seen a majority of our recent investment in real property improvements,” she says. “In the years following the recession, many companies added equipment and found they needed to expand their buildings because they’re out of room.” Saginaw companies have added over 700,000 square feet of manufacturing space within the last 14 months, she notes.
Even with those additions, finding manufacturing space remains a concern. “We keep hearing [that] companies aren’t able to find adequate space,” Crary explains. “We look at requests we get, at RFPs from site consultants, and we ask, what’s that sweet spot? What are companies asking for? Do we have it, or do we try to entice a developer to build it?”
Fortunately, Saginaw has a wealth of historic buildings and areas for potential redevelopment. Much of the current development work was initiated by Shaheen Development, with brothers Dr. Samuel Shaheen and Peter Shaheen following in the footsteps of their parents, Dr. Samuel and Patricia Shaheen. The family’s local redevelopment effort along the Washington Street corridor in Saginaw in the 1990s expanded to the Saginaw riverfront by 1999. “Fast forward 10 years, and we had 180,000 square feet of new building space and 700 new employees located along the riverfront,” Sam Shaheen says. “That was the catalyst for a lot of additional change in this urban core.” Meanwhile, related Shaheen family ventures such as the restoration of the Temple Theatre complemented other economic development projects and helped to spur change.
One of the major developments taking place is the revitalization of the Bancroft and Eddy buildings on Washington Avenue. After the buildings’ foreclosures, Cleveland-based Lakeshore Management was the successful bidder for both. According to Tom Miller, Jr., vice president of urban development and special initiatives at Saginaw Future, the company invested $7 million to develop the two buildings into residential space, augmented by a $1 million community revitalization program grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation that Saginaw Future helped to secure.
Today, the two structures are thriving. “The Eddy building is 100 percent full; the Bancroft building is over 60 percent full, reaching toward 70 percent,” Miller reports. “The developers are a couple years ahead of where they thought they’d be. There are a lot of medical students from the CMU medical school living there, some police officers, young professionals, people who are well into their careers—the building has been a really bright spot for downtown.”
Old Town Saginaw, the area between the Holland Bridge and the Center Street Bridge, has also seen a wave of redevelopment.
One of the key renovations in Old Town has come from David Strouse, who plans to return to Saginaw to retire and has spent the last several years investing in his hometown. Together with his now husband, Marcelo Goncalves, Strouse renovated historic buildings on Hamilton Street into the Strouse Hamilton Apartments, named for his parents. Developing the nine loft units probably saved the buildings.
“When I bought the Hamilton Street building, the engineer that inspected it told me it would last five more years, because the front and rear facades were separating from the floors,” Strouse describes. “We were frequently taking measurements on the walls, and we realized it wasn’t even going to stand for that long.”
Strouse originally bought the buildings out of a desire to preserve historic properties. With the required construction work, he needed to find a use for the building to generate money. “A viable solution seemed to be to build apartments,” he explains. “The numbers worked, the Saginaw Economic Development Corporation stepped forward to finance the first $100,000, and Chemical Bank agreed to do the construction loan.” Strouse’s own funds completed the financing, and the apartments opened in 2013.
“There have never been any vacancies since the apartments opened,” Strouse says. “There’s turnover, but the apartments are rented before they’re even empty in almost every case. A lot of young people like living in Old Town.”
In addition to Strouse’s developments, Hall Commercial Properties is exploring plans for multi-use and residential development. The company involves Jon Hall and children Jon Hall Jr., Richard Hall, Todd Hall, Kristina Hall, and Kimberly Norris. According to Todd Hall, Jon Hall purchased the building that houses Jake’s Old City Grill because “he felt the corner was an important piece of property for the City of Saginaw and especially for Old Town.” The Hall family is working to develop the building into residential and commercial space. “We wanted to do something nice for Saginaw,” Hall explains. “We all live in Saginaw and want the best for the city, and these types of revitalization efforts are great for everyone.”
Young professionals have also contributed to the development of Old Town’s dining and nightlife options. One of the area’s anchors is the double bar of JB Meinberg and Woody’s Draught House (formerly Woody O’Brien’s), which Tom Miller, Jr. bought in 2007. The bars now feature 100 beer taps, 50 each of Michigan and national or international beers. For Miller, this investment was a necessary component to help attract young professionals to the area. “I guess I’m on the fringe of being millennial-ish,” he says. “I have friends who live in Chicago, Royal Oak, Detroit, and Grand Rapids, and they all have a desire to see those kinds of spaces.”
Another Saginaw-based investment in the region is the Central Michigan University College of Medicine. According to Sam Shaheen, the value of the college lies in creating a totally different economic spark driven by MDs and PhDs. “There are thousands of colleges in this country but only 142 medical schools,” he says. “It’s exceptional and unique to have it here.”
Miller agrees, citing the college as “one of the most exciting projects to happen to the City of Saginaw in my lifetime.” Together with the developments in downtown, Old Town, and throughout the community, he says, the college has emboldened small business developers to “take a leap of faith” and start their own businesses in Saginaw.
For the last 119 years, Midland has been the home of The Dow Chemical Company, and Linda Hanlon, director of economic development at Midland Tomorrow, notes how that has shaped the county and the region. “As Dow chairman and CEO Andrew Liveris has said, Midland is part of Dow’s DNA,” she explains. “Dow has a strong commitment to our community and invests millions of dollars annually. In 2014 alone, Dow invested over $230 million.” The strong commitment to our region from both Dow and the Dow Corning Corporation “encourages a regional environment of innovation and entrepreneurship,” Hanlon says.
Part of the focus on entrepreneurship is centered in Midland’s SmartZone®, an area that utilizes tax-increment financing to develop and attract high-technology companies to Midland. The SmartZone, one of only 15 in the state, is managed by Midland Tomorrow. Hanlon says the SmartZone is “focused on accelerating economic growth within the community through the strategic use of Midland’s unique expertise in the chemical industry.” Midland Tomorrow is participating in an “aggressive attraction plan” for the SmartZone to help bring technology companies to the area.
Meanwhile, downtown Midland, which has seen a wave of new construction that includes the almost 213,000-square-foot East End building, is watching the construction of the H Residence on Main Street, an 84,000-square-foot, mixed-use development to include restaurant, retail, and residential space. Peter Shaheen is the project developer. Hanlon notes, “The first floor will encompass retail and restaurant space with room for three tenants, while the second, third, and fourth floors will feature 19 condos and rooftop space accessible to residents of the building.” This development is anticipated to generate $23 million in investment and create 46 full-time jobs.
Hanlon points to Midland’s community spirit as a prime asset for future development. “Midland comes together to maintain the strength and prosperity of the community,” she says. “The vision for the county is ‘Together, forward, bold—an exceptional place where everyone thrives.’ Everyone involved in the many levels of economic development works together to make this vision come alive.”
According to Bay Future president and CEO Mark Litten, business is booming in Bay County. “We’ve probably been busier working on growth projects than at any point in the last five to six years,” he explains. “It’s the perfect storm. It’s all coming together.”
Growth is perhaps most obvious in the Uptown Bay City development, which Litten notes has Dow as an anchor, the Real Seafood Company and Uptown Grill restaurants, and the soon-to-open Courtyard by Marriott-Bay City hotel. In addition, Michigan Sugar is moving its office of over 900 employees into Uptown.
Another of Bay City’s notable developments comes from a locally famous family. Paul and Peggy Rowley have been involved in Great Lakes Bay Region initiatives from the redevelopment of the Rail Trail and World Friendship Shell to the founding of the Bay Music Foundation. But along with the late Bill Gregory of Gregory Construction, their community development has also extended to the residential and retail realm with the development of such facilities as Jennison Place, the Boathouse Condominiums, and, most recently, the Mill End Lofts in downtown Bay City.
Mitzi Dimitroff, president of RDS Management and the Rowleys’ daughter, says her parents looked out their seventh-floor window at Jennison Place and “saw that old building falling down.” The former Mill End building was owned by a family friend, and the Rowleys felt their purchase and redevelopment of the location would spur the downtown Bay City economy.
Paul Rowley thought the driving force behind Mill End’s success would be the mixed-use nature of the property. “The key to keeping a downtown area healthy, alive, and growing is people living down there—in other words, feet on the street,” he says. “We believed in that, and our feeling was that we wanted housing downtown. But making it all housing gives you another problem. People don’t walk by in shopping mode if there isn’t retail or something to stare at in the windows.” That led to Mill End’s main-floor retail space.
Leaders in all three communities are teaming up on a number of efforts to capitalize on today’s wave of development and position the region for the future.
Part of the region’s plan for the future involves a greater focus on collective marketing to highlight strengths. The Great Lakes Bay Region is part of Michigan’s Prosperity Region 5, which also includes Arenac, Clare, Gladwin, Gratiot, and Isabella counties. The Region 5 economic development entities are collaborating for growth. “In 2015, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation funded a joint marketing effort for Region 5,” Crary explains. “We’ve hired a contractor to help us pull together our value proposition and market our region to site consultants. Our next step is to transition that to the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance and apply for grant money to hire a consultant firm to help us a with a business attraction plan.” Crary says the program is expected to roll out later this year.
Sam Shaheen feels the unique aspects of each community make the entire Great Lakes Bay Region ripe for further development. “You’ve got world-class recreation and a riverfront community in Bay City, which really gives Uptown a unique setting and aesthetic. Midland is a fantastic location for an established downtown that can really be leveraged to build upon its recent success. Saginaw has an existing urban base with a lot of diversity and offerings we don’t get in the other two communities. These places that are already thriving can be made more successful.” •
Photos By Doug Julian