Few communities in Kent County have suffered the Great Recession as deeply as Wyoming. The city’s greatest loss was the General Motors closing of its 28th street plant, but that acreage is added to the vacancies created by nearly complete retail losses in the city including Classic Chevrolet, Studio 28, Rogers Department Store and Klingman’s. Despite the suffering, Mayor Jack Poll notes, “We’ve never had such an opportunity as we have in Wyoming today. It’s almost like going back and starting over.” He is right on both counts, and as the city makes progress in envisioning — reinventing — its core retail zone, it must count its blessings.
First, “dead malls walking” is a conversation across the country as massive developments become less popular. It is yet another reason to be concerned about the suburban communities they inhabit, especially as a younger generation continues its exodus to urban areas. National polls show that 18-30 year olds — 83 million of them — want to live in urban areas, in walkable communities with parks, where they can attend cultural events. But speakers last week at the University of Michigan Urban Land Institute annual conference in Flint also noted they do not all necessarily want to live in downtown Grand Rapids, for instance, and that the model of such development will assist suburban communities, as well.
One of the best local examples is that of Celadon New Town at Leffingwell and Knapp, precisely the type of development in which the national office of the Urban Land Institute is recording growth outside of urban areas. The recession, however, has complicated the previous forecasts. The aforementioned age group also suffers a 30 percent unemployment rate and carries an average debt load of $23,000 in college loans. Most are living together with friends or at home with parents. Tom Murphy, representing the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., told the statewide conference attendees to anticipate a pent-up demand for housing, but also anticipate that pent-up demand will be answered with more rental housing than single family homes in the near future.
If Wyoming could reinvent itself to help answer such future needs, it would also set its sights on transportation centers to provide easy access to downtown events. Public transportation is noted in study after study as a highly desired resource among that population.
One of Wyoming’s most valuable resources is its emerging diversity of population. The city has already seen its Hispanic population grow from 10 percent to almost 20 percent. Its base of immigrants show distinction for the number and types of new businesses, and the city already is home to some of the most authentic, distinctive ethnic restaurants in the entire region. One could make more than one Restaurant Week of the city’s eateries. The ULI studies and those of other economic development groups show that immigrant populations are the inventors and new business creators of any given time in U.S. history.
Indeed, Mayor Poll, Wyoming has never had more opportunity to answer the needs of the next generation.