May 17, 2019

How Howell turned its downtown into a destination

Tom Henderson

Crain’s Detroit

In 2005, officials in the city of Howell decided they needed to do something to create a buzz for their town, to give people a reason to be there at night, or to pull off I-96 and come visit.

The city wasn’t exactly struggling. The vacancy rate was only about 7 percent downtown. Other small and mid-sized cities around the state might have considered that something to shoot for.

But, according to Cathleen Edgerly, director of Howell’s Downtown Development Authority, downtown office space was mostly filled with those offering professional services — attorneys, Realtors, accountants and the like. Those who worked there left at five. There was little culture, not much to do, no reason for anyone nearby to say: “Hey, let’s go to Howell tonight.”

“The city was doing well as the county seat, but it was a place people drove past. They didn’t stop,” said Edgerly. “The city wanted downtown to become a destination, and for that they needed to diversify the mix.”

So politicians and the Downtown Development Authority embarked on a marketing campaign, got the word out they were offering a variety of incentives to businesses willing to relocate or open there and helped entrepreneurs apply for state grants or loans through various programs at the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

Today, the vacancy rate is 1.5 percent, among the lowest in the state, and downtown is busy seven nights a week. Both the movie theater and opera house have been remodeled and reopened. The mix of business includes unique retail shops, fine dining, bistros, bars and burger joints, the Aberrant Ales craft brewery and the Frontal Lobe co-working and incubator space.

The city has also embarked, with help from the Patronicity crowd-sourcing platform and the MEDC, on what it calls its Hidden Alleys project, converting five public and two private alleys into pedestrian byways and places for area businesses to set out tables and chairs and open back doors into their establishments.

Last year, Howell was one of three cities in the U.S. given the Great American Main Street Award by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The others were Oregon City, Ore., and Rock Springs, Wyo.

“It was a huge reward. It got people asking, ‘What’s next?'” said Edgerly.

That will, she hopes, include more commercial space, more residential units downtown and perhaps some easing of old, outdated zoning that needlessly gets in the way of development.

“What can we do to ease development and create a pathway to success?” she said.

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