For many cities in the Rust Belt region, the glory days of manufacturing have long passed. These communities are now left trying to figure out how to revitalize their downtowns. One city is hoping a development for artists will create new life and draw people back downtown. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamar Charney reports:
For many cities in the Rust Belt region, the glory days of manufacturing have long passed. These
communities are now left trying to figure out how to revitalize their downtowns. One city is hoping
a development for artists will create new life and draw people back
downtown. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamar Charney reports.
The city of Jackson is in South Central Michigan, about an hour west of
Detroit. Four blocks from its downtown, next to the old armory and the
remains of an old prison wall, there’s a smokestack and a rundown complex of
(key & sound of door opening)
“The last company that was doing full blown manufacturing in this complex of buildings was Acme
Industries that focused on refrigeration coils. We’re gonna walk straight down here.”
(footsteps on stairs fade under)
Kay Howard is a ceramic artist. She and her husband Phil Shiban are getting a tour of the
buildings. Since the early 1900’s when this complex was built, it’s been home to many businesses,
but since the 1970’s, its been basically abandoned.
“At the top of the stairs step to the right. Don’t step on the white board. It covers a hole in the
(steps & sounds of glass & floor tiles crunching
Green and yellow paint peels and curls off the walls. The floor is littered with broken glass from
the building’s windows. And there are piles of bird droppings, broken lightbulbs, and rotting boards.
But Kay Howard and her husband are thinking about living here.
“It has so much that can be held onto. I hate seeing buildings knocked down or left in disrepair
when they could be reused and revitalized, and this just screams to have something done with it.”
These buildings are slated to become the Armory Arts Project. The plan is
to turn this 147-thousand square foot complex into an arts facility. It
would become the home to cultural organizations, arts-friendly commercial
businesses, studio space, and residential units that designed to meet the
specific living and working needs of artists, musicians, dancers, jewelers
and the like. Neeta Delaney is the project’s director.
“The driving force behind this is community revitalization. The impetus for this whole development
was really the existence of several tax-free renaissance zones.”
A renaissance zone is what Michigan calls its tax-free areas that were
created to spur development. Delaney says the project costs would
have been around 14-million dollars. They’re whittling down the out of
pocket costs by packaging together tax credits they get for cleaning
up a old industrial site, for renovating historic buildings, and for
creating low income housing. However when they approached developers with
the idea, they were told there was no way to make a go of it. But a
non-profit group from Minneapolis called ArtsSpace Projects Incorporated had a
different opinion. Chris Velasco is the director of Artspace.
“It’s not going to nor is Artspace designing it to generate
Money, but it will cover its costs.”
Artspace has successfully turned dozens of dilapidated buildings in a
number of different cities into affordable places where artists can live
and work. He says while Jackson doesn’t have a reputation as a bastion for
the arts, their market research showed there was more than enough demand
for such a facility in the city.
“If we were to create a multi-purpose arts facility use space in there we would have arts and
organizations 3-deep for every space that we create.”
He says that’s because artists have a hard time finding affordable spaces
where they can raise their kids that can also accommodate the tools of
their trade such as kilns, 10 foot tall canvases, and metal working
equipment. And he says the Armory Arts Project could fill that need.
“Isn’t this gorgeous? Oh my. Oh, this is just awesome.”
Project director Neeta Delaney leads the group to the top floor of one of
the old buildings where sunlight is streaming in through the broken
“Isn’t it great? Oh my. It is so beautiful, absolutely beautiful. And you think about residential units
up here. Live-work space, you know. This has got to be ideal.”
“This is the space that sold us on the building.”
That’s Steve Czarnecki, the CEO for the Enterprise Group of Jackson. It’s the umbrella
organization for economic development in the area that oversees the counties renaissance zones.
“Because when we first came up here, what else could you imagine this to be except a
place for artists.”
And he says once they figure out how to lure artists to Jackson it will be
easier to lure desirable high-tech business and their employees to the community.
“I think we have to increase our Bohemian Index a little bit here to attract those kind of people.”
See, artists have a track record for moving into old warehouse and industrial areas where
rents are low, fixing it up, and making a community hip and attractive.
The rub is they often then get priced out of the market. But rent at the
Armory Arts Project, like other ArtsSpace projects, will remain low.
And for artists like Kay Howard and Phil Chiban, affordable housing is one
attraction of the project. They support themselves on his pension
payments and her pottery sales. But there’s another reason they’re
interested. The couple is drawn to the idea of living with other working
“You get kind of solitary as an artist and you really need that contact and comradery and so forth,
so the idea of living in a community-type setting with other artists is very exciting.”
And she’s also excited about the prospect of being part of a project that recycles an abandoned
building and one that could bring excitement to a
downtown in need of new life.
“This has character you can’t design or duplicate. And look at the metal doors. Isn’t this amazing?”
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tamar Charney.