Detroit scores again — $800,000 — in Knight Challenge

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Over there, where rocks are poking through the grass? That’ll be covered in sand. Beyond it, where more rocks are poking through less grass? That’ll be a playscape shaped like the Ludington lifeguard station.

Behind tour guide Mark Wallace, a few steps to the south? That’s the Detroit River — and this, says the CEO of the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, will be Atwater Beach.

Sandra Yu Stahl of CitizenDetroit was awarded a $101,000 to send Detroit Public Schools students a “local citizenship kit” on their 18th birthdays.

The 2017 Knight Cities Challenge has announced its winners, and much like the bulldozers will clean up the site, Detroit cleaned up on the awards.

Five local projects received a total of $800,000 in the third annual competition designed to not only recognize innovation, but reward it by giving concepts the chance to become concrete. Atwater Beach was the biggest beneficiary, collecting $225,000 to help convert a former Coast Guard slip and cement silo into a specifically kid-friendly site at what’s now a detour in the RiverWalk.

Overall, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation awarded $5 million to 33 projects in 19 of 26 eligible communities where the Knights once owned newspapers.

Only Philadelphia matched Detroit with the five winners. Across three years, 17 Detroit projects have drawn $2 million of the available $15 million in prize money.

“You could look at it as, we have great innovators coming up with great ideas,” says Katy Locker, the Detroit program director for the Knight Foundation. Or, you could less charitably assume we have the most need.

Bottom line, she says, “Folks here are looking to make a difference, and looking for ways to activate all of our citizens.”

The other Detroit winners were:

Better Buildings, Better Blocks. Submitted by Chase Cantrell of Building Community Value; $150,000 to provide a pipeline for minorities into real estate jobs by teaching the fundamentals of small-scale development and providing initial financing for projects.

Design Center in a Box. Submitted by Susan Burrows of the Detroit Planning and Development Department; $205,000 to create pop-up city planning offices where residents can connect with city planners and stay abreast of design and development in their neighborhoods and beyond.

Detroit’s Slow Roll. Submitted by Jeff Herron of Detroit Bike City; $129,400 to leverage the 25,000 bicyclists who participate in Slow Roll Detroit, tying into renewal and the city’s nonprofit sector.

Happy 18th Birthday! Local Citizenship Kit. Submitted by Sandra Yu Stahl of CitizenDetroit; $101,000 to celebrate Detroit public school students’ milestone by sending a package containing a small present, an overview of local government and tips on how to become involved in the community.

The connecting thread among Challenge winners, the organization says, is that they’re built around helping cities attract and keep talented people, expanding economic opportunities or creating civic engagement.

Wallace says he hopes the prize will help attract enough donations and sponsorships to pay the $1 million to $2 million tab for the beach project, which includes an MDOT-built bridge over the wide boat slip and a barge that will serve as a path across it. Plans also call for retail and restaurant space, public grills and a sensory garden.

One thing the beach won’t have is water access. Given the harsh current, notes Marc Pasco of the conservancy, “If you jumped in the river, before you knew it you’d be in Wyandotte.”

This is an artist’s rendering of a busy day at Atwater Beach, one of five Detroit projects awarded grants in the Knight Cities Challenge.

Though the least expensive project among the Detroit winners is landlocked, it does involve ripple effects.

Stahl, of CitizenDetroit, says research shows that people whose parents don’t vote, don’t vote.

When the organization hosts voting-related events, she says, more than 65 percent of the people who show up were born before 1961. “But if you ask young people to vote, they’re more likely to. And if they do vote, they tend to keep voting.”

The Local Citizenship Kits were inspired by Finland’s baby box program, in which every expectant mother since the 1930s has received a parcel of infant necessities, and more recent innovations like Stahl’s monthly makeup delivery from Birchbox.

“We’re trying to get people to understand how government works,” Stahl says. The boxes will be civics lessons accompanied by a small gift, with a follow-up study after the city elections in November.

“I don’t usually think of really good ideas,” Stahl says — but this one, quite literally, was a winner.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn