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Michigan Strategic Fund issues grants of $17M to repurpose two vacant buildings

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(The Center Square) – Two long-vacant buildings, one in Pontiac and another in Battle Creek, will receive Michigan Economic Development Fund grants for renovations and repurposing to serve their respective communities.

Pontiac’s former Webster Elementary School will receive $15.6 million from the Michigan Strategic Fund. The appropriation include a $7.6 million Michigan Community Revitalization Program performance-based loan and a $5 million Revitalization and Placemaking grant.

The MICAH6 Community and Webster Community Center will become a business and nonprofit hub. The 1921 school building will house theater performances, educational services, food support and distribution, and special events.

“We are excited to celebrate clearing this milestone on the path to restoring this building into a space that will serve my neighbors for decades to come,” MICAH6 Community Executive Director Coleman Yoakum said in a statement. “Folks like our Oakland County Commissioner Gwen Markham, who grew up in this neighborhood, are always quick to remind me that even when it was a school, this building was a community center. We are excited to play a small role in bringing it back. Once it is open, this building and its tenants will serve more than 16,000 people a year through arts programming, health and wellness initiatives, entrepreneurship opportunities, and youth activities. We couldn’t have done it without so many partners at the MEDC, the foundation community, all levels of government, and especially our neighbors and community members.”

The project will also receive $2 million from Oakland County’s American Rescue Plan Act funds.

“Thanks to the Michigan Strategic Fund, Webster School will be fully renovated, revitalizing the M-59 corridor in our city and providing a home to community nonprofits that positively impact residents,” Pontiac Mayor Tim Greimel said in a statement.

Two former Webster classrooms will be occupied by the Pontiac Community Foundation, a business incubator. Outside the building will feature an athletic field, playground, greenhouses, and a community garden.

Battle Creek’s Anson Hotel will receive a $1.5 million Michigan Community Revitalization Program performance-based grant through the strategic fund. The building, vacant since 1997, will also provide the community with fresh food as well as offer downtown housing opportunities.

“The redevelopment and restoration of this historic property in our hometown, Battle Creek, will add downtown vibrancy and address two voids in our community,” developer Caitlynn Newman said in a statement. “The market on the first floor will provide fresh food and goods to the community, and the eight uniquely designed apartments will add more housing options to the downtown neighborhood. We greatly appreciate the MEDC’s support for this development as the project would not be possible without it.”

Kettering University School of Management Professor of Practice John Grether told The Center Square he typically opposes such taxpayer-funded subsidies, but he also begrudgingly notes the Pontiac and Battle Creek projects may provide community benefits.

“I always have concerns about the use of taxpayer funds for economic redevelopment since they seldom address the needs of the affected community in a cost-effective manner,” Grether said in an email. “However, assuming that these funds have already been earmarked for redevelopment projects and that the presumption of need is accurate, these may not be the worst projects.”

Chris Douglas, an economics professor at the University of Michigan-Flint campus, agrees with Grether.

“Without doing an in-depth cost-benefit calculation, these don’t appear to be the worst idea I have ever heard,” Douglas said. “There could be a case to be made to subsidize this development. It rehabilitates an eyesore or in economic terms, corrects a negative externality. It also provides a public good to residents in a low income area,” he said.

“Whether or not the subsidy is a good idea depends on the precise costs and benefits,” Douglas continued. “It is certainly a better use of taxpayer dollars than other developments that have been subsidized, such as Little Caesars Arena and battery plants, developments that don’t correct a negative externality or provide a public good.”

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