The dramatic recent economic resurgence in Port Huron and St. Clair County hasn’t come as a surprise to Dan Casey, the CEO of the region’s Economic Development Alliance, one of the oldest economic development agencies in the state, founded in 1952.
The EDA has about 160 members, including many of the biggest employers in the county.
Before taking the job in Port Huron seven years ago, Casey had been manager of economic development for the city of Rochester Hills for seven years, and for five years before that had managed business retention and attraction programs for the city of Southfield.
Deborah Snyder said the renovation will allow the school to increase enrollment in nursing programs and grow paramedic, radiologic technology, medical assisting and health information technology programs. Currently the building is mostly devoted to computer science programs but has a nursing simulation lab and a simulated emergency room to replicate hospital settings.
“I came in just as the recession was winding down,” he said. “Before I took this job, I talked to a lot of people throughout metro Detroit, and everyone thought this area had great potential that had never been realized,” said Casey, ticking off a handful of crucial infrastructure strengths, including the heavily traveled Blue Water Bridge border crossing to Canada, a rail line under the St. Clair River to Canada, two interstate freeways, a deep water port, rail lines and a large rail yard just west of Port Huron. It’s an hour’s drive to the big market of Detroit and, last but certainly not least, it has all that blue water.
“We had all these assets that hadn’t been realized. I thought when I took the job there was tremendous potential,” he said. “When I got here, what impressed me most was the core group of people who wanted to work together to make a difference.”
Snyder, a Port Huron native and school alum, was named interim president of the college in February 2016, replacing Kevin Pollock, who left for another job. In June that year, the board of trustees removed “interim” from her title. Previously, she had been president of Cogswell College in San Jose, Calif.
That includes a coalition of civic and business leaders in the county that calls itself Blue Meets Green, which was created in 2009 at the height of the recession to buttress the work of the Economic Development Alliance. The “blue” is a reference to the region’s long use of “blue water” as a branding term, with “green” a reference to the color of money and economic development.
The group’s mission statement is: “Develop the Blue Water Region into a prosperous, sustainable economic environment through the united effort and commitment of the private, nonprofit and public sectors.”
Blue Meets Green isn’t officially a legal entity. About 40 members meet every other month to look at regional economic development projects and discuss which projects they want to use their resources and influence to help advance.
Current projects the group is pushing, which were announced last April following a half-day retreat in February by 90 stakeholders, include development of a coding school and training facility in the county, a new main library, the creation of a seed fund for startup companies and launching the Michigan Stage Festival, a project begun by Tom and Kathy Vertin, owners of two live-performance theaters in Marine City. Their goal is to create a summer-long theater venue in St. Clair to rival the Stratford Festival in Ontario.
“After the recession hit, we said, ‘We have to do it ourselves. Lansing won’t do it, and Washington won’t do it,'” said Randy Maiers, the CEO and president of the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, about the impetus to form Blue Meets Green.
“Blue Meets Green is a passion of mine, and it’s been quite a ride,” said past co-chairman Don Fletcher, who was president of the Port Huron Hospital from 1988-2004. Jeff Bohm, the chair of St. Clair County’s board of commissioners, is the group’s chair.
Under President Deborah Snyder, St. Clair County Community College has embarked on several development projects and considers itself a major partner in Port Huron’s urban renewal.
The group’s first major project began amid controversy in 2010, as they tried to figure out what to do with the shuttered Thomas Edison Inn near the Blue Water Bridge and how to tie that in with a new convention center.
The project was jump-started with a $750,000 loan from the Community Foundation of St. Clair County to help fund the purchase and initial renovation work.
“A convention center didn’t make sense without a hotel, so we had to hold off on that until we could get a hotel in place,” said Maiers. “It was very controversial. People were upset that we were putting private and public money together. Our region had never seen a project involving so many different partners from all sectors, and had a wide range of funding and financing. So a part of the controversy came simply from the fear of the unknown.”
Hilton paid $4 million for the Thomas Edison Inn — or, rather, for most of it. Bohm said the county paid $1.8 million to acquire a banquet hall at the inn and some adjacent space that was later incorporated into what would become the adjacent Blue Water Convention Center.
“Including construction costs for the convention center, the county was in for $9 million in public money,” said Bohm. “We got some criticism. Why are you helping Hilton? But it was a good deal for us. What we got for $1.8 million was well under the cost of new construction. And we got a convention center that has had a lot of benefit for area businesses and the community.”
The St. Clair County Community College Fieldhouse includes a new basketball floor and a walking and running track.
Blue Meets Green is not a funding agency and wasn’t involved in financing directly.
The $11 million, 149-room DoubleTree by Hilton opened in August 2013. A third leg of the project was Baker College’s second Culinary Institute of Michigan, a $4 million, 23,000-square-foot facility that opened next to the Hilton in October 2013. The 40,000 square-foot, $9 million convention center opened in 2015.
Baker College built a $3.5 million, 40,000-square-foot dorm in 2015 to house 48 culinary students and a second, 30,000-square-foot dorm for 34 students in 2016.
“Having student housing downtown will bring a whole new level of energy,” said Freed.
“Once we got that all done, our partners were comfortable with other projects. They became easier,” said Maiers.
A subsequent project the group championed was the Inn on Water Street, a boutique hotel and restaurant the Vertins are building in Marine City. “They convinced us that a small boutique hotel in Marine City could have a big impact,” said Maiers.
The hotel is a $4.3 million project on the site of a former auto dealership. Blue Meets Green helped the Vertins get more than $1.1 million from the state in grants and loans, including brownfield grants to remove underground tanks at the site, and helped coordinate tax abatements from the city.
“That hotel was the poster child for Blue Meets Green,” said Maiers. “It shows that we aren’t just a Port Huron organization. Before, we used to have silos. Everyone did their own thing. Before, it would have been: ‘A boutique hotel? Don’t put it there. Put it in my city.'”
One thing Casey couldn’t have foreseen when he took the job in 2011, and that the leaders behind Blue Meets Green couldn’t have known in 2009, was that their goal of revitalizing county communities would become easier because of a huge cultural shift.
People got tired of malls, big-box stores, chain restaurants and long drives to work. Led in part by millennials who liked the idea of walking or biking to work, places like Port Huron, Marine City, St. Clair and Marysville were about to undergo dramatic rebirths.
When Birchwood Mall, an enclosed mall with more than 100 stores in Fort Gratiot Township, opened in 1991, it had a devastating impact on Port Huron and nearby communities.
“Downtown stores either moved to the mall or they closed,” said Casey. “When Birchwood opened 10 minutes away, it began a 20-year disinvestment in downtown Port Huron. And then the recession hit, and that was a hammer that hit downtown, too. But what you are seeing now is the polar opposite. When shopping malls came into being, shopping became convenience based. You went to the mall and parked there, shopped there, ate there and went to the movies there. But in recent years, the ability to shop online has become more convenient than the mall.”
With convenience no longer driving out-of-the-house shopping, people started looking for unique experiences.
“Unique restaurants, unique entertainment and unique shops … those are being found downtown, again. The salvation of the Sperry’s store is a good example,” he said, referring to a former longtime shuttered department store in downtown Port Huron that has been converted into a thriving first-run movie theater, none of whose 12 screens seats more than 41.
Once a seeming ghost town, downtown Port Huron has seen six new businesses open in the last year, according to David Haynes, the city’s director of planning and community development, who says there are now more than 50 retail shops and about 25 restaurants and bars in a 12-block stretch of downtown.
“We’ve seen a generational transformation downtown,” said James Freed, Port Huron’s city manager. “Millennials are coming downtown. Empty nesters are buying lofts and condos. And their interest is driving investment.”
Chuck Reid, the owner of the Sperry’s theater, is building a hotel down the street at the former Michigan National Bank Building, and the downtown is dotted with just-completed loft projects, lofts under construction and lofts or condos in the planning stage.
According to Haynes, a 19-loft, $3.1 million project at 202, 204, 206 and 208 Huron Ave., buttressed with the support of a $644,330 grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corp., is being developed by Larry Jones, who last year opened the eight-unit J.J. Newberry Lofts at 230 Huron; the three-unit Mid-Town Lofts project for 411 Grand River is being finalized; the five-unit Boat Yard Lofts and three or four commercial spaces are being built by developer Gerry Kramer at 308 Wall St.; and 10 other lofts projects have been proposed.
In November, Horace Boddy of Boddy Construction Co. Inc. told the Marysville City Council he is buying adjoining parcels of land that he plans to turn into more than 200 new homes and condos in the city, with groundbreaking on the first phase of 80-100 houses to start by May.
To some, the most exciting housing development in Port Huron is Bluewater View Condominiums, a mid-rise project that broke ground in November on the St. Clair River within view of Lake Huron. There are plenty of mid- and high-rise condos on the Sarnia, Ontario, side of the river but none in Port Huron.
Allen Stevens, a former New York developer who has moved back to the area, says the first phase, an eight-story tower with 28 units, priced from $275,000 for one bedroom up to $600,000 for three, could be finished by the end of the year. He plans on a second tower of 10 stories and 50 units, the timing of which depends on how the first building sells.
“I’m optimistic the first 28 will sell out this spring,” he said. “There seems to be a lot of demand. There’s not a lot of that kind of product out there. It’s a fantastic site.”
He bought the property, the site of the former YMCA, for $1 million in 2016 after another buyer failed to secure financing, and estimates the total cost for both towers will be $28 million to $30 million.
Units in the first building will range from about 1,200 square feet for one bedroom to about 1,800 for two bedrooms and about 3,000 square feet for a three-bedroom penthouse. Plans call for seven one-bedroom units, 19 with two bedrooms and two penthouses.
Currently, support beams are being pounded 110 feet into bedrock. “That’s expensive, but they make it so the building will be there forever,” said Stevens. “It’ll take us two months to get the foundation done, but we’re able to get it done in winter because the ground isn’t frozen that far down. In the spring we’ll begin actual construction.”
“The skyline is changing,” said Freed. “I’m looking out my window at the Bluewater site, and there are cranes and steel everywhere.”
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