Build-a-thon challenges to re-imagine Muskegon Heights


A new two-day event challenges teams of professionals to redesign architectural structures in downtown Muskegon Heights to bring health and economic vitality back to the city.

Arisei LLC, a sustainability project management and consulting startup based in New York City, is hosting the upcoming Muskegon Might build-a-thon July 18-19 in collaboration with the city of Muskegon Heights and The Way to Wellville, and invites interdisciplinary teams of professionals to re-imagine and redevelop the downtown Muskegon Heights area.

The event will take place at Muskegon Heights Academy, 2441 Sanford St., and challenges three teams of professionals to re-invent three structures within two days. The Muskegon Might build-a-thon will culminate in a presentation of the innovative designs and business models at 1 p.m., July 19, in front of investors and the public.

With the partnership of The Way to Wellville, Muskegon County Economic Development Corp., Muskegon Rotary Club and Muskegon Heights City Council, Arisei developed the event to encourage participants to create economically, environmentally and socially sustainable solutions to bring health and wealth back to downtown Muskegon Heights.

Henry Gordon-Smith, co-founder of Arisei, said the build-a-thon allows professionals to mobilize around the kind of standard structures present in downtown Muskegon Heights and continue a conversation with investors who may be interested in funding a project.

“The vision is, after the presentation, there will be an open dialogue in regard to feedback from the investors, and we will try to facilitate a next-step discussion,” said Gordon-Smith.

“We see the prize really being a professional can show their skills as part of a group, say they are in Muskegon and this is what this place is capable of. The professionals, above all, get a chance to build their network and bond amongst this challenge.”

The three teams will include at least five professional members who are actively engaged in their fields and represent such industries as architecture, engineering, marketing, general contracting and entrepreneurism.

“We are at two teams now and we are trying to recruit three teams,” said Gordon-Smith. “In addition to those team members, they can add other people, so Team 1 has added two students and a community-based person, so they are a team of eight.”

Although two of the specific sites are still being narrowed down, the three locations will include an industrial structure, a retail space and the Strand Theatre at 25 E. Broadway Ave.

Gordon-Smith said a revived Strand Theatre would hopefully bring excitement back into the area, while the industrial building might include clean manufacturing or a vertical farm, and the retail space might be envisioned as a health clinic or restaurant.

“The Strand Theatre we see as the shining star that has been neglected,” said Gordon-Smith.

“I am going to teach some of the teams about vertical farming and its capacity to do well in post-industrial structures. Michigan has a lot of unused industrial space, which is kind of the idea for these repurposed structures, and the vision is for the retail space to bring it all in.”

Part of the challenge during the Muskegon Might build-a-thon is to develop a way to connect the three sites, such as growing fresh food in a vertical farm for a local restaurant located near the theater.

“The connection between the spaces are what we want them to think about because really these represent typologies,” said Gordon-Smith. “Even if the end result isn’t that these particular spaces get redeveloped or taken on, they represent other similar structures in downtown Muskegon Heights.”

During the first daylong workshop, teams will have a chance to learn more about sustainability, urban agriculture and energy topics from Gordon-Smith, Arisei co-founder Shay Reza and additional mentors throughout the country to help facilitate concept development.

Each of the designs and business models will be evaluated based on the sustainability of the project, economics, engineering and architectural and environmental elements, according to Gordon-Smith.

Kimberley Sims, a Muskegon Heights councilwoman, said one of the goals of the event is to show the viability of Muskegon Heights for investment, despite the challenges it has had in the past.

“It is actually a very viable location and there is a wealth of opportunities. Once there are some tangible small investments and easy wins, if you will, in the community, some of the other stuff is going to trickle off. But right now there is nothing there creating a community synergy, and there is nothing there giving people a sense of hope that there is viability.”

The development of the Muskegon Might build-a-thon was prompted by a conversation Sims had regarding what was needed to restore the Strand Theatre. After speaking with angel investor Esther Dyson, Sims said Dyson took an interest in the restoration and discussed the possibility of a build-a-thon with Gordon-Smith after serving as a judge at one of his agri-tecture workshops in New York.

“The Strand Theatre has long been a passion of mine to restore,” said Sims. “It was basically a question I asked: ‘How do I get investors to even take a look at this?’”

Dyson is the founder of the Health Initiative Coordinating Council, or HiCCup, which is the challenge sponsor of The Way to Wellville movement to improve health and economic vitality in five communities across the nation. The greater Muskegon area was selected in 2014 as one of the five Wellville communities and is working to address smoking, adult obesity, post-secondary education, and social and emotional support for the community.

“Muskegon Heights has a different sort of climate and it kind of has remained desolate for a long time,” said Sims. “When you look at health and those aspects, the social determinants that are in Muskegon Heights, until that is shifted to talking about health like the Wellville movement talks about, it isn’t going to happen there.”

As an event incorporating health into a business model format to ensure solutions are engaging and sustainable over a period of time, Sims said she hopes the event will spark a form of hope both inside and outside the community.

“As you look at a county movement to rebuild Muskegon County, with Muskegon being centrally located within that county, I believe the movement is only going to be as strong as its weakest link,” said Sims. “I believe the leadership in Muskegon Heights is now very ready to go to the next level. We’ve overcome the financial hurdles we once experienced, and young people are excited about this.”

The Muskegon Might build-a-thon is still accepting applications for professionals to engage in the event as a participant, mentor or investor. Those interested can apply at

“Muskegon might find a way to be more sustainable and healthy, but it also relates to the might of the people,” said Gordon-Smith in reference to the Muskegon Might name. “I believe there is a capacity within all of us to redevelop and re-imagine the world around us.”

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