Rubin: There’s good news from Flint, if you have guides

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The gentleman at the conference in Georgia was very, very excited to hear that DeAndra McCain was from Flint.

He wanted to shake her hand. He wanted to take a picture.

“He told me, ‘You turned our world upside down,’ ” McCain says.

She’s the director of the convention and visitors bureau for Flint and Genesee County, so that could have been a good thing. Instead, it was just part of the same old thing:

He worked for a bottled water company.

The comments, the questions ... “It’s expected,” McCain says. “You know it’s coming.”

What’s unexpected is some good news from the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce: compared to 2015, hotel revenue actually increased by 15 percent for the first quarter. Take a quick tour of the city with some professional optimists and you see a goodly number of reasons to come back.

But what’s the shelf life of bad water? How far do the ripples spread?

It’s been 27 months since residents of Flint started complaining about what came out of the tap. Nineteen months since GM switched from Flint water at its engine plant. Six months since the governor declared a state of emergency.

“We’re not past it,” says George Wilkinson, the chamber’s group vice president. “We’re still in it.”

They’ll be swimming against the tide for a long time. But the only hotel in the city, the Holiday Inn Express?

The water there tests fine. And you should see the Flint Farmers’ Market.

Building biz booming

The slow response from the state inadvertently helped tourism. Most visitors book rooms outside the city limits anyway, and it took awhile for people to realize they should be concerned.

Once word began to spread, McCain says, the focus turned from recruiting to reassurance.

You call the event planners and tour leaders. You explain the difference between a hotel in Grand Blanc and a poor neighborhood in Flint, explain how filters work, explain that the college hockey players at the tournament should skate through unscathed.

One of the most painful losses was the 59th annual CANUSA Games, a youth competition involving 1,200 athletes and another 800 parents and coaches.

It will still take place Aug. 5-7, but in Hamilton, Ontario, rather than Flint because the kids stay with host families and a lot of the families are still picking up their water in cases from fire stations.

On the plus side, the Comfort Inn in Grand Blanc sold out 80 nights between November and May — at least partly because of volunteers flocking to a distressed area to lend a hand.

The frustrating thing, says Wilkinson, is that “we had tremendous momentum.”

A historic theater downtown is being renovated, like The Fox in Detroit. The long-empty Durant Hotel a few blocks away is thriving as lofts — “our version of the Book Cadillac,” says the chamber’s Kyle McCree.

Chevy Commons, a recessed former industrial site the locals call Chevy in the Hole, is becoming a RiverWalk-style green space along the Flint River.

Poisoned water tends to wash away other topics, but construction continues even if conversation has stopped.

And it really is a terrific farmers market.

Staying positive

The Flint Farmers’ Market took over the former Flint Journal building on First Street downtown.

Open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, it has all the usual staples, plus eight or 10 restaurants, two rentable community kitchens, arts and crafts stands, wide aisle and no visible Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

It’s near the pediatric clinic where Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha first noticed high lead levels in children and also near a bus station, giving people easy access to worthy food instead of just snacks from the neighborhood party store.

Wilkinson, 55, who played basketball in the CANUSA Games as a kid, was clearly pained as he talked about losing them for the year. But at the market half an hour later, he bought a bag of guaranteed smiles — chocolate chip cookies with French sea salt from a Fenton-based bakery called Crust.

Lose some, win some. His glass is still half full, and the EPA says that as long as you use a filter, you can drink from it.