by Bob Barnett

Community partnerships have been critically important to the ongoing revitalization of Downtown Flint, and the results have been nothing short of amazing. Groups like the Downtown Development Authority, Genesee County Land Bank, The Uptown Reinvestment Corporation, The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and the local colleges and universities have pooled their talents and resources to create a 21st Century City Center that others are beginning to notice. Flint has received a lot of national attention (finally for the right reasons) for the changes it has undergone, and our great city has become a model for others in and around the region.

I was recently part of a team that hosted a statewide conference at UM-Flint. The theme was university/community partnerships, so it seemed only right to start the conference out with a walking tour of the downtown area. Our guests saw the five newest restaurants that have opened on Saginaw Street in the last eighteen months. I learned from Scott Whipple, our Downtown Development Authority tour guide, that a small café and two more restaurants are also slated to open in the coming year.

Two major engineering firms have set up shop downtown, and in addition to bringing more jobs to the area, Wade Trim and Rowe Engineering have been instrumental in many of the construction projects that have been completed or are in progress. Each of these buildings also includes retail space and loft apartments. The lofts are beautifully designed, convenient and affordable. We were told that the lofts in the Wade Trim Building (on the corner of 2nd and Saginaw Streets) have a waiting list of fifty people.

Not to worry, though. The Genesee County Land Bank is nearing completion of a 30 million dollar renovation of the historic Durant Hotel. The building has sat idle since the early seventies. Named after one of the co-founders of General Motors, this gem of a building on the north end of downtown, will open with six or seven floors of apartments designed for college students and business professionals, as well as a first floor plaza of shops and eateries. With its completion, Flint will take a giant step toward reaching its goal of building a downtown infrastructure capable of supporting well over a thousand permanent residents.

Of course, no rejuvenated community would be complete without a neighborhood grocery store. Every robust community has one, and the corner market is often a hub for social activity, a meeting place where friends and neighbors can catch up on the latest gossip and neighborhood news. Witherbee’s Market and Deli, on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and University Avenue (across from the Durant Hotel), is poised to become that treasured neighborhood gathering place we have all been waiting so long to see.

Witherbee’s is the first downtown Flint grocery store to open in thirty five years. And it was well worth the wait.

With a full produce section (including a good selection of organic fruits and vegetables), meat and cheese counter, a full service deli, refrigerated and frozen foods (great selection of ice cream), and aisles and aisles of dried goods, canned goods, health/beauty/baby products, Witherbee’s is perfectly situated to serve the downtown and surrounding community and to help us all satisfy our food and beverage needs. If you live in the Berridge Apartments complex across the street or in the nearby neighborhoods, you’ll be able to do regular grocery shopping without having to trudge to the outer circle of the city to get what you need.  And if you work in the downtown area, like I do, Witherbee’s is right on the way home so you can stop by for that item or two and be on your way. They’ve only been opened for a week and I’m already a steady customer.

Another unique feature of Witherbee’s is its outdoor café seating. I love this idea because it gives this little shop a true neighborhood feel. You can meet up for coffee and sandwiches or just hang out and text your friends while you sip on a cold soda or a hot cup of coffee. Definitely not a picture I might have imagined for this area five or six years ago.

As I walked along the streets with our tour guide and with my colleagues from across the state, it was so refreshing to hear them say things like, “This isn’t at all how I imagined downtown Flint” or “My friends told me not to venture out in Flint because it wasn’t’ safe. I can’t wait to tell them how wrong they are.” Those of us who live and work here every day know that Flint is rising from the ashes. We should feel obligated to tell our story and show the world what a great community we live in. And by all means invite them to drop by Witherbee’s Market and Deli to see the small town charm of our newest neighbor.

© Bob Barnett, 2010