While the folks in Chicago are riding a crowded subway to their offices in the city, or fighting traffic in a gas-guzzling SUV, David Geisler is taking a leisurely stroll to his office on 5th Street in Calumet. Along the way he’ll stop for coffee and greet some of his neighbors.
Geisler, the village president of Calumet and acting director of Main Street Calumet, is also a self described “poster child for downtown living,” and part of a trend that seems to have arrived here in the U.P.
“That’s why I live around the village, I enjoy the people, I enjoy that excitement of seeing people out on the street, being able to walk to things of interest,” says Geisler, who moved here from Chicago about three years ago. He says he had been visiting the area for the past 57 years before taking the plunge and making the place his permanent home.
“I figured I better come up here first and see how it is in the winter,” says Geisler, with a chuckle. “I tell my friends in Chicago that doubted my ability to live in such a small town that it turned out better than even I anticipated.”
Geisler is not alone. There is a definite trend of people wanting to live in or near downtown districts here in the Upper Peninsula. They want to live in these denser population areas for many of the same reasons as everyone else: to be able to ditch the car or at least drive less, to be close to the action, and to live in smaller dwellings.
“Years ago people wanted these big, big places, these big homes,” says Susie Landers, business development director in Houghton. “If anything, we’re getting to be more of a society of wanting convenience, being content, just having what you need.”
The trend is also evident in Marquette; in fact, it started around 2006, according to Mona Lang, executive director of the Marquette Downtown Development Authority.
“People like the convenience of walking to shopping, entertainment, dining, and events,” says Lang. “Many work in the district and walk to work. In Marquette’s case there are recreational opportunities as well. The downtown is vibrant and people love being part of the activity and the vibrancy.”
To bring folks downtown, whether to live or to visit, requires effort on the part of city planners. They have to give folks a reason to come downtown. Besides providing entertainment and services, every town needs to have a high “walkability” rating, i.e., the ability to walk to these venues. It also helps if a town has unique attributes that naturally attract people to the heart of the city.
In Calumet it’s the art district and the creative energy within the five city blocks that make up the downtown, according to Geisler. It’s also the Calumet Theatre and fabulous restaurants.
“On a much smaller scale, you have all the attributes in Calumet that you have in Chicago,” says Geisler. “Retail, dining, great art scene, beautiful buildings, and the two best restaurants in the area!”
In the city of Houghton it’s the walking trails, parks and waterway, among other things. It’s also the diversity of people who frequent the downtown.
“Our downtown has a great balance of all ages,” says Landers. “If you visit downtown you’ll see students interacting with seniors, and we have a very diverse ethnicity because of the college.”
In Marquette they’ve been experiencing the downtown living trend a little longer than the other U.P. cities and have a little more experience trying to accommodate people who wish to live downtown. They’ve definitely made downtown Marquette a place where people want to be.
“The downtown is adjacent to Lake Superior with beaches in walking distance from downtown,” says Lang. “We have non-motorized multi-use paths right in the downtown that connect with not only the city’s 17 miles of bike path but with the larger 48-mile Iron Ore Heritage Trail through the county.”
In addition, she says downtown Marquette has over 20 restaurants, a grocery store, an organic food market, museums, and a multitude of events throughout the year– like the Downtown Farmers Market on Saturdays, a huge weekly event.
The challenge for city planners is in finding or creating housing to meet these needs. All three city executives agreed people are beating a path to their doors to find a place to hang their hat, a phenomenon that wasn’t so evident a few years ago when boards were still on some of the windows downtown.
In Calumet the long-anticipated Morrison School conversion project is nearing completion, which will add 13 living units. And in Houghton projects are in the works, including rehabbing the “Old Kirkish Building” at the foot of the bridge. Landers said they’re also working with developers to come up with ideas for more living units. Many of the retail stores downtown have tenants living upstairs.
The progress in converting space to living units is most evident in Marquette, with several projects either underway or completed.
“We have had great local developers who understood the need for downtown living and have invested in building townhouses and condominiums,” says Lang. “There are 11 condominiums in the restored Flanagan Warehouse Building, also Harbor Ridge townhouses and the Waterfront Building, which is a restored foundry that sits along North Lakeshore Boulevard. In addition, the Founders Landing Development has built condos along South Lakeshore. We have also been fortunate to partner with the Michigan Housing Development Authority which helped with grant funding for second story residential rehabilitation of downtown buildings. ”
For those of us who remember folks sitting out on their front porches back in the old days, the trend towards living downtown provides evidence that we may be going full circle and getting to know our neighbors again.
“In the old days you saw people sitting on their porches, now they’re sitting downtown on the benches,” says Landers. “It’s all about gathering, that’s what makes a community a community.”
“In Houghton we’ve made some huge, huge steps,” she continues. “The windows are being washed, the boards are coming off, the shingles are going up and it is very welcoming.”