Downtown Escanaba comes alive

Michigan State Roundup

Published July 1, 1992  | July 1992 issue

The continuous drop in assessed value of downtown properties from 1981 to 1988 spurred creation of Escanaba's Downtown Development Authority (DDA) in 1988. Since then dramatic changes have occurred along the city's 22-block downtown main street as the following figures confirm:

  • 251 businesses are currently located downtown; five years ago there were 149.
  • 1,393 people hold full-time or full-time equivalent jobs; before 1988 that figure was 1,076.
  • The downtown vacancy rate wavers between 3 percent and 7 percent; in 1988 it was 24 percent.

But the key to downtown's revitalization was to take a non-traditional view of downtown. "Promoting 22 blocks of retail would have been suicide," says David Bammert, DDA director.

Instead, the DDA has encouraged small businesses, services and professional firms to locate downtown. One such business, an engineering firm with a total annual payroll of about $800,000, employs 25 people. While the business may not get much walk-in traffic, Bammert says, those employees may choose to shop on their lunch hour or eat in a downtown restaurant.

In addition, the presence of more downtown workers is apt to draw more downtown retail—and so the circle continues. "We're increasing the base for retail to draw from," Bammert says.

DDA has also broken Ludington, the city's main street, into corridors. The office and governmental corridor will be enhanced when a new city hall is constructed eight blocks down the street to join the existing county courthouse and federal offices, and a new or expanded library and art center expansion will enlarge the current cultural corridor.

Two recent acquisitions will encourage continued population growth and activity in the downtown area: the purchase of a church-owned home for the aged and a commitment from C. Reiss Coal Co. to relocate its downtown dock to a site outside downtown.

The Bishop Noa home for the aged was purchased by a local developer, with the assistance of the DDA. Plans call for creating ground floor retail space and apartments for the remaining five stories. The building will not only encourage more street life for downtown, but a property long off the tax rolls will become tax-generating, Bammert says.

The Reiss Coal Co. has agreed to a land swap with the city of Escanaba whereby the downtown waterfront will be freed for development of housing and recreational facilities. And the coal company, which has operated at the edge of downtown since 1899, sees an opportunity to upgrade and expand its facilities on a city-owned site further north along the Escanaba River. That site will likely become part of a larger commercial shipping development in the future.

Kathy Cobb