The Block performance and meeting space is part of the West Michigan Symphony Orchestra, based in Muskegon. Courtesy Muskegon County CVB
(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Downtown Muskegon, once known as an industrial town, has shed its former image to become a vibrant destination.
Investments in renovations in the downtown area and the growth of the leisure and hospitality sector are influencing the momentum behind the economic development in Muskegon and the surrounding county area.
Last month’s Muskegon Market Report, published jointly by the Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce, Muskegon Area First and The Employers’ Association of West Michigan, highlighted downtown investment data and the growth in the leisure and hospitality sector for Muskegon County. The report noted a total value of more than $200 million has been invested in the downtown area since 2002, with the construction of 15 new buildings and 22 renovations.
Renovated buildings range from cafés, restaurants and hotels to the Hackley Public Library and L.C. Walker Arena.
Some of the newly constructed buildings include: Baker College’s Culinary Institute of Michigan, Grand Valley State University’s Annis Field Station, PNC Bank, Muskegon Central Fire Station, Hot Rod Harley-Davidson, Renaissance Place Apartments, Shoreline Inn and Conference Center, and Muskegon Farmers Market.
Jonathan Seyferth, executive director of Downtown Muskegon Now, said the reconstruction process of downtown Muskegon started in 2004, and the difference in the area from 10 years ago is night and day.
“I’m actually really impressed with where we are at right now, especially considering how far we have come in 10 years,” said Seyferth. “We’re right at the $200 million mark in investment in the downtown with the number of buildings we have had renovated or constructed. That is really impressive.”
Located at 380 W. Western Ave., Downtown Muskegon Now is an independent nonprofit organization affiliated with the Muskegon Area First agency, and is dedicated to encouraging new development in the downtown area, while preserving historical aspects of the community.
The organization reported 3,760 individuals are employed in downtown, with 47 retail shops, 17 restaurants and two breweries, and more than 1,000 Muskegon Lake boat slips as of June 2014. With interest in several of the remaining available lots in downtown, Seyferth said the focus of the organization is to foster new construction on the property sites.
“We have three spots basically on Western Avenue, which is our main street in downtown, that are available for development,” said Seyferth. “Currently, we have interest from third parties on all of those lots, so I am trying to coordinate with them to get them from the actively interested to the actively doing something on those lots.”
Looking ahead, Seyferth said although the downtown is on track to meet a number of objectives outlined in Downtown Muskegon Now’s Vision Statement for 2018, the organization’s next step is to increase the amount of living options, such as the High Point Flats and Terrace Point Landing projects.
“I think that is sort of the missing puzzle piece right now, and once that is in there, I think everything else will fall into place because so many other things have already fallen into place,” said Seyferth. “I think that will spur mixed-use developments where we have commercial, retail, restaurant space on the street level and living options above or possibly office spaces above.”
Andy Stone, deputy director at Michigan Works! Muskegon-Oceana, said the changes and improvement to the area has increased vitality in Muskegon.
“The redevelopment of downtown Muskegon has added a new energy down here that is really helping create excitement as Muskegon comes out of the recession,” said Stone.
George Erickcek, senior regional analyst at W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said economic development in Muskegon is partly due to the activity in the downtown area, in addition to the growth in leisure and hospitality.
“I think downtowns are important. Muskegon’s downtown has been an event waiting to happen. When they took out the mall, when they cleaned the shoreline, it was waiting to be developed,” said Erickcek. “Finally, after so many years, it is starting to take place. There is starting to be nightlife. … It is such a beautiful setting, it could really turn into something nice.”
Robert Lukens, community development director for Muskegon County, said of the several sectors driving the economic growth in Muskegon, tourism is one of the three largest in the community.
“With the two new breweries in downtown Muskegon we are seeing a lot of people from around the state and really from around the Midwest visiting,” said Lukens. “That is driving a lot of traffic into our town and we are getting some overnights from that traffic.”
In the Muskegon-Norton Shores area, overall employment increased in the month of May by 1.5 percent, or approximately 900 employment positions, for a total of 62,700 jobs. The leisure and hospitality sector saw an increase of 12.1 percent, or 800 jobs, during the month May for a total of 7,400 jobs. Employers in the sector have increased employment opportunities by 7.2 percent since May 2013, according to the Muskegon Market Report.
Several factors promoting growth in the tourism and hospitality sector include: two full-service downtown hotels, festivals and events, new restaurants opening in the past three to four months, and an increasing interest from tour groups and conventions.
“We are attending a lot of industry trade shows in the group tour sector,” said Lukens. “We can connect our CVB executives with group tour operations, and because of the great visitor resources and amenities that we have here in Muskegon County — we have many museums and historical attractions in the area — we are seeing a lot more interest from that group.”
Although Muskegon now is experiencing the height of summer tourism season, Lukens said the area also benefitted from the cold, snowy winter due to the Muskegon Winter Sports Complex and the attraction of ice fishing, citing a 15 percent increase in accommodation and tax collection October 2013 through May 2014 compared to the previous fiscal year period.
“We saw a lot of visitation, especially from the Chicago area, to the state park and the winter sports complex, so that really helped us out this winter, where typically winter becomes quite slow in some of the lakeshore communities,” said Lukens.
Muskegon is in the process of conducting a feasibility study for a convention center and arena renovation, and creating larger meeting or conference spaces in downtown.
In order to maintain the forward momentum of economic activity in the hospitality and tourism sector of Muskegon’s economy, Lukens said a main issue is to grow the shoulder and winter seasons on a leisure basis through the development of new promotions, programs and events.
“We are looking at a campaign that would help make people more aware of what we have to offer here in Muskegon, both from a business, quality of life and employment standpoint,” said Lukens. “Muskegon has shed its old image, or past image. It’s cleaned up quite a bit here — it is not the industrial town that is used to be — so we want people to be aware of that.”