Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Between Jobs--Jackson Converts to a Cool City

Somewhere between our beefy manufacturing legacy and the New Economy -- between east Michigan and west Michigan -- sits the city of Jackson (pop. 36,316). If you look closely, you'll see signs of its transitional status--lots of houses for sale, lots of vacant commercial properties, a 'COOL CITY' neon sign in the Chamber of Commerce front window.

What makes Jackson a "Cool City?" It's the Armory Arts Project, an economic development effort transforming the historic 19th-century Jackson State Prison site into a live/work space for artists. It garnered the 'Cool City' designation from Governor Granholm in 2004 as part of the Cool City Pilot Program.

A generation of Jackson workers spent their lives with Goodyear Tire. From 1937 to1983, Goodyear operated a massive manufacturing facility on a 59 acre site. Colorado-based Kinder Morgan now operates a gas-powered, electric generating plant on the site. In the past year several more plants have closed, TRW and Eaton among them.

Redevelopment for economic development continues to be a focus of the Enterprise Group of Jackson, an alliance of several organizations devoted to keeping Jackson County economically viable. Jackson County has four tax-free "Renaissance Zones" and a long list of corporate/commercial properties available for development.

I spoke with Jane Robinson from the Enterprise Group about the Armory Arts Project,"We did an initial feasibility study in partnership with Art Space, a Minneapolis-based group that cultivates space for artists around the country,"Robinson said.

Robinson says the project is already having a positive impact on the downtown with new residential development and shops moving in. "Property values on the street with the Armory have risen 972%,"Robinson boasted.

"What makes this project unique in the country is our incredible historic site. There is a four-story high gallery, eight smaller galleries, workshops, a ceramics studio, and a large scale art production studio all available for the tenants at no extra cost,"Robinson said. "In future plans for the Armory, we will have a 'creative innovations center.' This will be a learning environment where manufacturing and artistic communities come together for collaboration." According to Robinson, business and marketing workshops will also be available to artist/residents.

Groundbreaking happened in November 2006 with a completion goal of January of 2008, which Robinson expects to meet. There are 62 units--some apartments, some lofts. "We kept the integrity of the buildings with the exposed brick walls and coved ceilings. 40 units are already reserved. We have attracted artists from around the country--Miami, Atlanta and Chicago, as well as from across Michigan,"Robinson shared.

This Saturday, June 16th, at 4p.m. there will be a tailgate reception and hard hat tour of the project. Robinson welcomes all creative people who might be interested to the Saturday event.