February 27, 2016 -- by Jim Neff
The Neff Zone
GLIMMERS OF HOPE FOR FLINT
I'm not going to tell you Flint is a garden spot. Even before the water crisis, Flint was a challenging place to live, to say the least. What the water catastrophe has illustrated is “...the result of a failed model of trying to run state government like a business,” says Dennis Schornack, who retired after serving more than three years as a senior adviser on transportation issues to Governor Snyder and who earlier served twelve years as a senior policy adviser to Republican Gov. John Engler. Schornack also notes: “The people of Flint got stuck on the losing end of decisions driven by spreadsheets instead of water quality and public health...You can't just answer everything with numbers.” (http://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/flint-water-crisis/2016/02/22/ex-snyder-aide-financial-focus-led-crisis-flint/80767216/)
Even from a purely business perspective, what is happening in Flint is just, plain bad business. John Austin, director of the Michigan Economic Center, observes: “Just as we were beginning to change our Michigan identity from part of a battered Rust Belt to a leader in the emerging Blue Economy — seizing on our natural water availability as one of our greatest economic strengths, marketing our clean, water-rich location as the place to live, work and play, solving the world's water problems with Michigan corporate and technological know-how — we get this disaster...turning attention from our emergence as a global water innovation leader...and making us look like a third-world state and global embarrassment.” (http://www.mlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2016/02/flint_water_crisis_exposes_thr.html)
With all of that said, all is not lost in Flint. There were glimmers of hope before the water crisis and those rays are still trying to make it through the clouds. I've seen it first hand. This past summer my wife and I were taken on a tour of downtown Flint by my brother-in-law, John, and sister-in-law, Katharine. Here's what we saw.
The Flint U of M campus now occupies a large portion of downtown, with classroom buildings, dorms, and and all the support services needed for a college campus. With almost 9,000 students (60 percent of those are full time), it's a fast growing operation. (https://www.umflint.edu/)
Added to that, Michigan State University has a new campus for its College of Human Medicine occupying the renovated Former Flint Journal building. The building contains classrooms, lofts for students, and is adjacent to a new farmers market. (http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2014/11/flint_celebrates_new_michigan.html)
In case you were not aware of this, Flint already had a college presence. Just west of downtown is Kettering University, a premier engineering school, formerly General Motors Tech. On the southwestern edge of Flint is the flagship campus of Baker College (a solid link to Cadillac).
On the west side of the downtown district, Flint Powers Catholic High School now occupies the former Michigan School for the Deaf building, a structure dating back to 1913, and the transformation is nothing short of spectacular (http://www.powerscatholic.org/). MSD had a brand new facility nearby. (http://www.michiganschoolforthedeaf.org/)
The upshot of all this Flint-developed brain power, is that downtown has experienced a bit of a resurgence to serve all these students. This means restaurants, entertainment venues, and retail. Just announced last week, for example, is a $31 million restoration of the historic Capitol Theater. This is a classic: “Built in Italian Renaissance style, one ceiling was designed after the outer vestibule of St. Peter's cathedral in Rome, according to Flint Journal files, and interior walls recreate views of buildings that evoke old Italy.” (http://www.mlive.com/news/flint/index.ssf/2016/02/capital_theatre_gets_55_millio.html)
Plus, many older buildings have (and are) being repurposed to provide housing downtown. An example is the classic Durant Hotel, which has been converted to a 93-loft residence property. In a 2014 MLive article, Marcus Papin, marketing and property manager for Uptown Development and Uptown Reinvestment Corporation, citing the need for 1000 more units, said: "We can't keep up for the demand of people who want to live downtown."
Now, I know none of this makes any difference to the thousands of Flint residents out in the neighborhoods who have been forced to exist on bottled water, but the point is that before and during this crisis there have been those who have been trying to move Flint forward. If the city's main hub can flourish, that spirit and investment will inevitably move outward into the rest of the city. At least that's the hope.
While all this is going on at the upper end of the scale, there are also some valiant efforts being made for those struggling the most. My wife and I attended St. Michael High School on the northern edge of downtown Flint. The school opened in 1914 and closed in 1970. The building has had various tenants since 1970, but now it houses the Center for Hope operated by Catholic Charities.
This summer as part of a class reunion, we had a chance to tour our old school. Some of our classmates opted not to do this, expecting that it would be a sad experience. It turned out quite the opposite. The building is almost pristine with many of the classrooms looking like we left them. Refurbishing is now going on, but we were thrilled to see how nice the building looked. (See pictures at www.flintstmichael1965.org/school-photos/).
More inspiring, however, was the work being done within the walls of St. Mike's. The Center offers meal programs, counseling, education, a warming center, and much more. The work they are doing is awesome!
In terms of the water situation, the Center is in the thick of it. Northern Michigan has been very generous with aid to Flint, but as you may have heard there are some who have taken advantage of the situation with scam operations posing as charities. The Center is one place where you can be sure that every bottle of water and every penny of support is going to those who need it most. (http://www.catholiccharitiesflint.org/flint-water-crisis/)
Spring is around the corner, a season of rebirth and renewal. Perhaps if Michigan's leaders deposit their spreadsheets in the circular file and focus on people (for a change), this spring will mean better times for Flint.
Jim Neff is a local columnist. Read Neff Zone columns online at CadillacNews.com and NeffZone.com/cadillacnews.