Bay City, Michigan

Michigan | 1999 Great American Main Street® Winner | Posted: 10/18/2008

Nearly a century ago Bay City, Mich., (pop. 35,000) rivaled Chicago in population growth and boasted the highest number of millionaires per capita in the U.S. Built by lumber barons along the banks of the Saginaw River about 90 miles north of Detroit, Bay City was a bustling Victorian metropolis.

In the ensuing decades, the international port city changed dramatically as suburbs sprang up in the surrounding countryside. While Bay City kept its more than 250 historic buildings intact, its infrastructure aged, and in the 1970s, the community struggled to keep its heart—the downtown — alive. For the first time in its history, downtown Bay City suffered multiple vacancies, including an abandoned Kresge’s store. Retail competition increased as a regional mall opened and new strip malls developed in the county. Splintered management of issues and unstable funding sources plagued ongoing efforts to fill the vacant storefronts left behind as anchor businesses fled. By the mid-1980s, Third Street was a desolate stretch. In 1986, the city established a business improvement district to create an improved environment for investment. With special assessment funds designated for its management, Downtown Bay City set its goals and crafted its tools.

Over the past two years, Downtown Bay City has exploded with private investment exceeding $15 million. Projects range from a dynamic $6.5 million residential condominium that houses more than 50 families in the historic Albert Kahn warehouse to the development of a million dollar arts center, the renovation of an abandoned 1930s car dealership as an Italian bistro, and the opening of a bakery after a 40-year absence. Investment levels for 1999 are continuing to rise, with construction beginning on a $22 million conference center and hotel, a $3 million restaurant project in a renovated train depot, and additional investment for condominium projects in existing and new buildings.

New facades and interiors have affected more than 200,000 square feet in downtown property. More than 20 new retail businesses and 15 new offices have opened, boosting the number of downtown employees to an astounding 3,700 in 250 businesses. Now, 29 restaurants, cafes, pubs, and delicatessens flourish, a far cry from the six restaurants and handful of bars in 1986. Family entertainment was limited to a bowling alley and the Historic State Theatre. Today, they are joined by more than 60 speciality shops, The Bay City Arts Center, the amphitheater in Wenonah Park, The Delta College Planetarium, the Historical Museum, the riverwalk, and boating excursions. Waterfront concerts and festivals, sidewalk cafes and flower boxes, boat racing, and narrated trolley tours have created an exciting environment for commerce and tourism.

Today, investors consider Bay City a solid choice, visitors find it charming, and urban pioneers now call this old industrial town home.