Being a fairly new resident to the Muskegon area I remember my first visit to Muskegon’s downtown. I was very puzzled to the empty lots and scattered old buildings. My girl friend, my wife now, told me a little of the saga of the downtown mall that use to exist and how they tore down the old buildings to build this mall which is now gone as well. I have taken a few walks through downtown Muskegon this past summer, something I don’t regularly, error, ever do. For the most part I really only go downtown to use the post office. With exceptions of Summer Celebration and Bike Weekend I have noticed to great surprised on how few people go downtown even with advents like Miss Michigan, Taste of Michigan, and Rockfest.
The city has done a good job attracting new business to the area and new construction that can be seen with the Baker College’s Culinary School, Subway, Chamber of Commerce building, and the renovations in the remaining buildings.
However, there are still huge vacant lots, buildings empty, and projects that appear to be on hold. I can already hear the catch 22 from business and banks. “We would love to relocate our business to Muskegon’s downtown but we can’t get financing” or “We would love to loan business the money to move to the downtown but the occupancy rate is too low and don’t see how a business will do well.”
So I began to think “What is one business that can be built that will draw people to an empty cornfield or empty downtown?” I thought of two local areas that have done just this very thing. Downtown Kalamazoo and Knapp’s Corner on the northwest side of Grand Rapids. Kalamazoo’s Pfizer closed office and research buildings that were located downtown leaving a large void of traffic for area businesses. Knapp’s Corner was an empty farmland a few short years ago and now it is one of the busiest intersections of the area. Both areas started their rebuild or build the area with one common crown jewel, a state of the art movie theatre. First comes a movie theatre then comes the restaurants, then shopping, and service business. People always do dinner and a movie, movie and drinks, etc. When you have this combination the number of people increase.
I mentioned this concept to a few people and I got varied responses. Some older residents remember going as a child to the Frauenthal Theatre for a movie and it was a big event. The Frauenthal is great for live performances and performing arts, I feel regular movies would take that important role away from Muskegon. Others said to me there is not enough room for a huge multiplex theatre. The theatre does not have to be a AMC 30 or Studio 28, it needs to be the best 4-6 screen cinema. A place that will show the first run movies in a comfortable, high-tech audio and visual cinema.
Another void I see this theatre full filling is a place for local movie premieres. As Michigan Film industry grows it would be great if we had something other than a typical mall movie theater. With that in mind, where is one place that films are premiered? I can not think of that “go to” establishment. With Muskegon’s proximity to Lake Michigan this would be a perfect way to draw the film industry for premiers and film festivals. Park City’s Sundance Film Festival has captured this audience in the winter but none in the summer has the same notoriety. Saugatuck has a good start but they lack the major airport, major hotel, and other infrastructure for large events which Muskegon has already proved they can handle with Summer Celebration and Bike Weekend.
I haven’t even gotten into the economic incentives with living or opening a business in the downtown. Muskegon has a tax-free Renaissance Zone right in the middle downtown. For more information with the tax-free Renaissance Zone I encourage you to visit the Muskegon area Chamber of Commerce for more details.
Muskegon has a blank canvas and the ability to transform itself from a manufacturing base to a huge tourist town. If we lack the ability to draw our local people to our downtown, we lack the ability to bring people from around the state and the nation.