Flint, MI—In the summer of 2022, Flint Downtown Development Authority (DDA) executive director Kiaira May invited three community development consultants to Flint. Her goal: figure out a path forward for Flint’s struggling DDA.
“Coming into this, the DDA was really just in a disarray,” May, who has held her position since June 2021, explained. “We had no direction, no goals… So as I was leading the organization into something different, I really wanted to have groundwork on what was it that we really wanted to focus on—what was working, what wasn’t working, and how we really wanted to move forward in the next direction.”
So, in August of last year, Brad Segal, president of Denver-based Progressive Urban Management Associates (P.U.M.A.), along with Yvette Freeman, senior strategist, and Andrea Buglione, senior associate, walked through Flint’s downtown.
“In terms of initial impressions, I actually was really heartened by downtown,” recalled Segal, whose consulting firm has worked with downtowns nationwide, including in Traverse City, Grand Rapids and Detroit, Mich. “I think it has what we call ‘good bones.’”
Segal said the team took stock of Flint’s farmers’ market, historic buildings, and downtown university campus, all visible from Saginaw Street, the city’s main thoroughfare.
“There’s some good assets there,” he noted.
In other words, the consultants said they were pleased to learn there was a strong base from which they could craft the DDA’s soon-to-be-released strategic plan. “Good bones” meant that plan didn’t have to start from nothing. In fact, the path forward that May and other downtown stakeholders had been hoping for already had its outlines.
During their initial visit, the P.U.M.A. team met with and interviewed Flint leaders, residents, business owners and visitors to get feedback and impressions about the downtown area and how people viewed the DDA and its role, more specifically.
“A good majority of the people that we interviewed, they were natives of Flint,” Freeman said, noting that was rare among the hundreds of cities the firm has supported since its founding 30 years ago. “So, I thought that was really awesome.”
Awesome in that people had a lot of knowledge and passion to share about Flint’s past and present, Segal said. But, such passion can also bring challenges when a plan calls for potential change.
“I do think—and I’ll take responsibility, I’m a boomer—I do think that we find generally in a lot of cities, Flint included, that a lot of stakeholders who have been there a long time and have held on through some tough times tend to be really protective of the past,” he said. “I do think there’s an opportunity in Flint, though, to create pathways for younger people to get involved. And interestingly, I think the DDA is one of those places that could become more of a change agent moving forward.”
After those initial summer interviews, P.U.M.A. also conducted an online survey from Sept. 26 to Nov. 15, 2022. Among other things, the survey asked respondents for their demographic information alongside their vision for downtown Flint, their favorite downtown attractions and what they saw as in need of improvement in the area.
It was shared on social media and sent out via the Flint DDA’s newsletter. It received 652 responses.
To share those responses, as well “visionary and implementable goals” for the DDA over the next five years, Segal and Freeman returned to Flint for two “Downtown Strategic Plan” sessions on Jan. 12 and 13, 2023.
From the head of a large wooden meeting table in the DDA’s second-floor conference room, the pair started by walking through all of the feedback compiled between the interviews and surveys of the last few months.
The survey responses showed that, as Segal noted, younger people do have input on Flint’s downtown, with the survey’s highest response rate, 45 percent, stemming from 25 to 44 year olds.
A little under half of respondents said they visit Flint’s downtown daily, either living or working in the area, and many also shared what brought them downtown most (the Flint Farmers’ Market and local bars and restaurants) and their favorite events (Back to the Bricks and Art Walk came in first and second, respectively).
Respondents also noted the top four “most important” physical improvements needed downtown. Those, ranked highest to lowest, were: to make the area safer and more accessible for pedestrians, improve Riverbank Park, improve the downtown parking experience, and attract more arts and cultural venues and experiences.
“That one shocked us, actually, because ‘parking experience,’ yeah it’s there, but it’s third,” Segal said during his and Freeman’s Jan. 12 presentation. “I mean, everything we learned when we came to Flint, and the dysfunction and the controversy related to your parking system, we were sure that people were just going to rail about parking on this survey—not so much.”
Segal told his audience that the majority of respondents also said they wanted to see downtown’s “reality and/or perception of public safety” improved and to make it more welcoming and inclusive to all—the latter being underscored by both Segal and Freeman.
“We heard from, in particular as it relates to the African American community, not everybody feels welcome in downtown,” Freeman said.
“Your city is 60 percent African American, I believe, but I think there’s two African American-owned properties in downtown,” Segal added. “So are there opportunities for more real estate, in addition to businesses, to be more reflective of folks who are in the community?”
After presenting their findings, the P.U.M.A. team shared preliminary suggestions with the gathered stakeholders—a mix of DDA board members, downtown residents, property owners and others who work in economic development, urban planning and law enforcement.
As promised, some of the consultants’ suggestions were more “visionary” than others, such as creating a Business Improvement District (BID) or Downtown Improvement District (DID) model to diversify future funding sources and broaden the DDA’s functionality.
Others were much more basic, like defining what exactly the DDA is and does.
“What we found is there’s a lack of clarity about the DDA’s identity, mission and responsibilities,” said Freeman. “There’s a lot of confusion about who’s responsible for what.”
Freeman noted the city and its DDA don’t have a “basic services agreement” which is meant to outline which entity provides what downtown services.
“Most cities that have a DDA or a similar organization, there’s essentially a contract or agreement where the city says, ‘These are the services we provide. The city of Flint provides these services downtown, whether or not there’s a DDA,’” Segal said, noting those city services might include emptying trash cans twice a week or making sidewalk repairs. “These are the things that the city does, and then this is what the DDA does—which should be additive.”
Segal said since “there’s none of that here” it’s difficult for either entity to understand and deliver on its role in providing a base level of service to downtown residents, business owners and visitors—effectively causing confusion and, sometimes, misplaced upset when problems arise.
Other near-term suggestions remained focused on the basics, like developing internal processes and doubling down on efforts already in the DDA’s purview, like cleaning, maintenance, beautification, and yes, the management of downtown’s parking experience.
“You don’t normally have a bunch of consultants coming to town to recommend you hire a consultant, but that’s one of our recommendations,” Segal said with a smile. “We need a parking management consultant.”
Segal noted that hiring a parking management consultant who wouldn’t be “involved with the end game” means that that person or entity could take a more objective view of Flint’s parking system and help craft the best solution for people’s ongoing frustrations. According to P.U.M.A., the DDA’s current “pretty outlandish” parking contract is set to expire in 2024.
Other recommendations included improving the DDA’s event permitting and public notification process, providing business support services that complement existing economic development and entrepreneurship initiatives, building grant-writing capacity on the DDA team, and diversifying the DDA board.
“So that’s diversity on a variety of levels,” Segal said. “It’s generational diversity…gender…And then also racial diversity, particularly in a city like Flint.”
While the consultants’ job will conclude when they share the final strategic plan with Flint’s DDA by mid-February, May said that’s just the beginning for her team.
The executive director said she hopes the plan will lay the groundwork for more positive engagement and clarity of purpose for the DDA. But, mostly, she wants to make sure Flint’s residents, neighbors, business owners and other stakeholders feel heard.
“I want people to feel heard more than anything,” May said. “Not just one community, but all communities—young, old, Black, white, pink, it doesn’t matter. Downtowns are for everybody. And I feel like with this plan, we will really be on the right track in attracting just more investments, more things, more opportunities for Flint.”
For their part, Segal and Freeman said they were hopeful the plan, paid for by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, will help the DDA function properly and garner more support for its work from the community, grant-makers, and the city.
“I guess what I would hope is that our work ends a cycle of generational neglect on the DDA. This organization has been neglected. It’s been, I think, tokenized by the city for at least a generation, maybe more, and it’s been relatively ineffective in the past,” Segal said. “I hope we break that cycle. I hope we can help deliver Flint the DDA it deserves, and a DDA that can foster change, can create a portal of entry for new generations into downtown, and to truly become a change agent because that’s what these DDAs are for other cities. I mean, Flint should have that too.”
May told Flint Beat that once the DDA receives the final strategic plan from P.U.M.A. she will host open virtual meetings to share it with anyone who wishes to review it and learn more. Those sessions will be announced via the DDA’s newsletter and social media in mid-to-late February.