Thursday, December 08, 2016

A small town and the local college team up for major renovations to revive the community

Residents of Albion, Michigan, are rallying with their small-town college to renovate the dilapidated homes in the Harrington neighborhood next to campus. Albion College President Mauri Ditzler says the plan is to sell the renovated homes to staff and faculty at half price, as a first effort to reverse the college's fleeting enrollment, Lorin Ditzler reports for the Daily Yonder. “We only have one rule: you have to keep your porch light on,” says Ditzler, who was hired as the college's president just before renovation plans took off. The college offers a free, four-year education to residents who meet admission requirements.

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The "porch light" project seems like the perfect slogan for the former steel town, which lost a third of its population after steel jobs disappeared, "shrinking from about 12,500 people in 1960 to around 8,500 today," Ditzler notes. "Residents grappled with declining job prospects, the city struggled to maintain infrastructure and services (with a dwindling tax base), Albion College was facing declining enrollment, and construction had all but stopped."

When the first home broke ground in Harrington after the project began, it was the first new home built in Albion in eight years, the college president told Ditzler. The targeted neighborhood has grown to six square blocks, including properties purchased from the Michigan land bank.

While the lights of new homes in the Harrington neighborhood were being kept on, construction in downtown Albion restored one of the town's cultural icons. The Albion Community Foundation raised $4 million to restore the Bohm Theatre, signaling to residents that community leaders were indeed taking change seriously, Ditzler writes. “If it wasn’t for the Bohm getting done, a lot of (recent community improvements) wouldn’t have even been thought of,” Samuel Shaheen, an alum of the college and one of the primary real estate developers in Albion’s renaissance, told Ditzler.

Groundbreaking for Albion hotel (Daily Yonder photo)
The college and community filled vacant storefronts with classes, administrative offices and restaurants. Ditzler reports that the biggest accomplishment is a $10 million downtown Courtyard by Marriott hotel. "The size of the project was unprecedented for the town, and was made possible by funding from the college, the state of Michigan, and private investors, including Shaheen, who is developing the project at cost." Skeptics of the hotel idea were convinced by the college’s promises to fill up the new hotel several times a year during multi-state horse shows in the school's newly expanded equestrian arena, Ditzler reports.

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