Flint's downtown experiences renaissance
Flint — When Nakshidil Sadien was growing up on Mauritius, an island off the east African coast, she knew she would leave for college.
She ended up in an unlikely place: the University of Michigan — in Flint, known for its abandonment years ago by General Motors and high rate of violent crime. Yet the city is on the cusp of a renaissance, partly because of its five higher education institutions and students like Sadien, who feel at home there.
Sadien had planned to attend classes in Flint for a few years, then transfer to UM's Ann Arbor campus. But after she settled in, Sadien embraced the culture at UM-Flint, becoming a peer mentor, a leader in the international student association and the student body president.
She will graduate in December and plans to go to graduate school, but suspects she will stay in Flint a little longer because of her connections in the community.
"Flint has managed to keep me here for some reason," said Sadien, 23. "It's that vibe that Flint has. People are keen to get together, and to organize. I don't think every city has that. You had a sense of community here that I have experienced and I adore. It's not something you get to be around very often."
A "New Flint" is emerging downtown — and university partnerships are a central part of the evolution.
The renaissance in the city 70 miles northwest of Detroit includes a growing number of businesses, restaurants, condominiums with wait lists and a farmers market that thrillist.com hailed as one of the top food markets in the nation "you must visit before you die."
Hundreds of people are now living downtown, including students staying in newly renovated buildings. Some say Flint is only a few years behind Detroit's downtown resurgence.
"Flint is going through a transformation and becoming a new kind of 21st century city," said Flint Mayor Dayne Walling. "That has profound implications for our neighborhoods, our transportation network and the greater downtown core that includes the colleges, universities and medical centers."
From crisis to revival
The New Flint comes nearly 30 years after filmmaker Michael Moore portrayed the devastation caused by GM's massive Flint downsizing in the documentary "Roger & Me."
Since then, the city has battled one challenge after another, including high crime rates and a recent drinking water crisis. The city has been governed by four emergency managers since 2011, saddled with a deficit that hit $20 million.
But the financial crisis officially ended a month ago, with Gov. Rick Snyder calling it a "new day" for the Genesee County city.
The seeds of Flint's revival were planted a decade ago when a small group of Flint natives decided to invest millions in the city center, a derelict district where most buildings were boarded up.
With loans from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, support from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and partnerships with nonprofit organizations and the universities, payoffs are emerging. Among them: dozens of luxurious downtown lofts, renting for upwards of $2,000 a month, and 23 new businesses — including Cafe Rhema, a 1920s-styled coffee house in the former Economy Shoes building, and seven new restaurants such as Table and Tap, in the Wade Trim Building and featuring 40 beers on tap.
There's also a health and wellness district, where the farmers market will soon share space with a pediatric clinic. Nearby is a clinical training and lecture site for public health students working on their master's degrees in Michigan State University's school of medicine.
Key to the city's renaissance and the pioneers behind it are the colleges and universities: Besides UM and the MSU site, which both are downtown, Flint is also home to Kettering University, Mott Community College and Baker College.
"The universities have played a major part in the redevelopment of downtown," said Tim Herman, CEO of the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce and president of Uptown Reinvestment Corporation, a nonprofit working to reinvent Flint.
Flint's higher education community is the main reason Philip Shaltz, president of Flint auto supplier Shaltz Automation, decided to join the strategic vision to renovate buildings, an initiative that has reduced the downtown vacancy rate from 50 to 15 percent, according to the Chamber.
"If there is no higher education and no manufacturing," Shaltz said, "what is going to attract people to Flint?"
'Urban is in'
Shaltz is among seven businessmen who formed Uptown 6, a private group that has invested more than $25 million in downtown building renovations to revitalize the city core. In 2004, the group partnered with Uptown Reinvestment Corporation, a nonprofit with funding from local and state organizations and foundations. Together, the groups partnered to become Uptown Developments and leveraged more than $100 million in investments in Flint's downtown.
Shaltz, who personally invested more than $2 million, insisted he wouldn't have been committed if it weren't for the universities, especially UM-Flint, which is the fastest-growing public university in the state, rising from 7,773 students in 2009 to 8,574 as of fall 2014.
"This was a GM town of 87,000 employees," Shaltz said. "When GM decided to change their philosophy, and go from 87,000 employees to 7,000 today, that's a financial and social impact to the city. If there hadn't been higher education institutions — especially like UM-Flint that is positioned in downtown Flint — I am not so sure my group back in 2004 would have done what we did.
"People come to this town, outside of this county, and outside the state, for the University of Michigan-Flint," Shaltz said.
UM-Flint's international student population has exploded during the last 10 years. In the fall of 2004, there were only 55 students from countries outside the U.S. Last fall, there were 663 international students, most hailing from Saudi Arabia, India and China.
"Being downtown Flint, this is our home," said Chancellor Susan Borrego. "A regional comprehensive university, by its nature, is committed to a region to create and enhance lifestyle in the region. We're right here downtown. As Flint goes, so go we. As we go, so goes Flint. I have this group of partners who are as interested in seeing the university grow as I am."
One of the key parts of the vision included bringing students to live downtown.
That's why the16-story Riverfront Center, formerly the Character Inn hotel, was converted into student housing. Completed in 2012, the facility has 550 beds for students at UM-Flint, Baker and Mott Community College.
"We pushed to bring student housing, which was not here," Herman said. "It was very important not only for the downtown but for the university to get more students, especially international students. Most want to live downtown so they can walk to school and other places nearby. Urban is in."
Though down sharply from its peak of 180,000 residents in the 1960s, Flint's population has stabilized in recent years, hovering just under 100,000.
College students, who now number 34,000 in Genesee County, live downtown and visit the coffee houses, restaurants and the Soggy Bottom Bar, a dive with hip food, said Marcus Papin, project and property manager of Uptown Reinvestment Corporation. An even younger crowd is hanging out downtown in a teen club featuring punk rock bands and rap battles.
"They are taking over, these hipsters!" Papin said.
Kettering University, just outside downtown, has the nation's only campus center that nurtures high school teams in competitive robotics. The program gives teens experience with science and lets them interact with college students and faculty. Snyder even highlighted it earlier this year in his State of the State address.
But that program is much more than robotics. It's about inspiration, said Kettering President Robert K. McMahan Jr. And it is only one thing Kettering, and the other universities, are doing to help drive Flint's revival, he added.
"This is one element of a multifaceted strategy to engage the city and region in ways that help reset the economics of Flint," McMahan said. "And it's not just about building a pipeline for us. It's about building a pipeline for the country."