An+Open+Letter+to+the+Citizens+of+Saginaw


Vital to any cities success is a central, vibrant business district. Cities such as Ann Arbor, Royal Oak, Grand Rapids, Lansing, even Detroit, enjoy relative success, at least in part, due to a bustling downtown area. These areas of commerce and creativity produce jobs, enrich qualities of life, and provide a lifeline to the city in form of taxes and population increases, which, in turn, produces more commerce and creativity.

Saginaw used to be one of those cities. Its business center in the downtown area was a bustling city center, full of unique shops and people at all times of the day. People were gainfully employed by any number of manufacturing jobs and its population, and more importantly tax base, lived within its city limits. It left us with magnificent buildings and lore, a belief in the greatness that Saginaw once embodied.

We all know how that turned out. I have no desire to recount the storied eventual decline of our home. I also have no desire to return to our roots in this city. They were based on a model that is no longer viable here. We were wedded almost exclusively to an unsustainable manufacturing base since the very early beginnings of this city, and to continue to do so will bring nothing but the same. Certainly, manufacturing still plays a role, but diversity is now the name of the game and must be attained for any hope of a revival of our city.

This presents us, the remaining citizens of the city, with two options: apathy or opportunity. Certainly apathy rules the day for most of our denizens, and who can blame them? Rising taxes, drug and crime problems, decreases in population, an empty, dilapidated house on every other corner brings our quality of life down along with our image. Even on the sunniest of days here it can look bleak, the sun only serving to highlight our cities sores.

But Saginaw knows in its heart that this isn’t our fate. We are surrounded here by beauty that peeks through every veil of darkness. Our river, our wildlife refuge, our system of parks, our historic neighborhoods are a reason to believe. So I, for one, am choosing to be on the side of opportunity.

To turn a corner in this city we must get a ball, really almost any positive ball, rolling. We absolutely need an emergent idea, creative rallying cry, something positive to pay attention to. Opportunity abounds here and teems underneath the murky surface. Vacant buildings beg to be occupied with creative energy once again. Our two city centers broadcast possibilities to creative minds that lack the necessary means to realize their visions.

This is the recipe for resurgence: one part opportunity, two parts creativity, one part money.

And this is beginning to become a reality in at least one part of our historic city, Old Saginaw City, better known as Old Town. For years, the one beacon in this part of the city was our lone, cultural refuge, the Red Eye Coffee House. Its owner, Robert Maul, embodied the character needed to get up and brush ourselves off. His example was felt throughout the city, and will be palpable to many long after his sad departure.

But there is more happening down there now than just a coffee house. Three of our best locally owned restaurants, Pasongs, Jake’s Old City Grill, and Fralias, reside there. Locally owned shops still occupy the ground floors of the buildings and creative people are taking up residence, as well.

Paolo and Sarah Pedini have opened a new art gallery on Court Street. Artists in residence to the gallery, Matt Lewis and Paolo hold their studios there. Artists Eric Shantz, and myself, Geoffrey Pelkey, have our art studios in the Hamilton Square building. The Hancock Theater is also adding to this mix. The creative business owners of the restaurants, bars, and tattoo shops continue to bring events that get the people out of their homes and bring them down for days of lively activity. The Lawnchair Film Festival can bring over a thousand people to the area.

My vision for this area is one that would work as a revival in almost any city center. Young, professional people who live and work in a city that provides them with a quality of life that erases the need for them to look for it somewhere else. We must cater to creative people; we need them to stay here if we want to succeed.

Here are additional ideas meant to spark a discussion that I know have worked in other places who have experienced similar turnarounds. These are meant to be ideas to spark the investors of this area:

1.    Old Town needs a form of entertainment to draw people down there. And I’m not talking about Jedi Mind Trip at the pub here. I’m talking about an Art Film Theater, like the Michigan or State theaters in Ann Arbor, one that could house both theater plays and thoughtful films that we don’t necessarily get at the commercial movie houses in the township. The old comedy club building would be perfect for that. Or how about a jazz and blues club? Or a small concert hall, like the St. Andrews Theater in Detroit?

2.    More local eateries. Who here is tired of the bland chain restaurants of Bay Road? I know I raise my hand in affirmation. If the first place people thought of for food was Old Town instead of Bay Road, the traffic and business increase would be enormous to the area. Where is our pizza by the slice that stays open after the bars? Where is our 24-hour diner? Our Indian food or sushi restaurants? How about a local co-op and food market? These are vital ideas for a fledgling business district.

3.    Green space. Across the bridge is our wonderful attribute, Ojibway Island. It has concerts and events that bring masses to the area. Taking advantage of that is essential. Where are the vendors on the streets? How about a pedestrian footbridge across the river to the park? How about erasing the eyesore of too much parking like installing a dog park in front of the warehouse on S. Hamilton, where the parking is crumbling and no one uses it anyway, or the grassy area next to the Covenant Building. We need people to walk down there. A person walking past businesses eventually produces increased currency and a dog park is a way to accomplish that.

These are simple ideas that could have an impact in the vitality of our city. I live and produce work in and near Old Town. My job is located in the downtown area across the river. I like living here and do not live in fear of what might happen.  I see untapped potential all around me. I am wedded to the idea that I can improve my quality of life while living here by raising the others around me up as well. But my point of view is not of the majority. So we need your help, Saginaw. If you have talent, any talent that will bring a positive aspect to our goal, please, please, get up off your butts and join us. It can only produce benefits.