As a lakefront city looking to move forward, Michigan City looked to a similar Midwest town to see what they have done to improve quality of life for their residents.
John Antaramian, former Mayor of Kenosha, Wisconsin, was the guest speaker at Wednesday’s Michigan City NOW meeting at the Blue Chip Casino. Antaramian, who was Mayor of Wisconsin’s southeasternmost city from 1992 to 2008, gave some 200 Michigan City leaders are residents an overview of “The Kenosha Story,” and how the involvement of the general public went a long way in the great improvements that city has made over the past two decades.
Michigan City Mayor Ron Meer noted that Michigan City has “learned a lot about how this man (Antaramian) has turned Kenosha around through his passion and commitment.”
Antaramian referred to the general public as the “Gang of 100,” noting that while in the process of suggesting ways to make the town more appealing, everyone was invited and encouraged to attend public meetings, meetings were always recorded and often aired on television.
“We had meetings on TV so much, residents were asking us to stop airing them because they have seen them so many times,” the former Kenosha mayor joked.
But giving everyone an opportunity to provide input simply worked.
“People really bought into being part of the process,” Antaramian said. “The whole plan was started by getting the public involved and tying everything to our Master Plan.”
And while Antaramian was at the forefront of the efforts to revitalize the city, he said that the project is not his, “it is the city of Kenosha’s project.”
“We got the public involved early and it worked,” he said. “It is important to have the public involved in all major projects.”
The total cost of revitalizing through the Kenosha plan was $80 million, and while some elected leaders opposed portions of the plan at first, when it came time for a vote - all of the city’s 17 aldermen voted in favor of the final concept.
Now, Kenosha is known as an attractive destination spot about an hour north of Chicago with a popular Farmer’s Market that brings on average 8,000 people to the downtown area on a Saturday morning, two museums in close proximity to the lakefront that bring in an additional 200,000 visitors a year, a streetcar system that connects the city’s neighborhoods to Lake Michigan and a navigable downtown area with unique shops and restaurants not far from perfectly placed city parks.
“The focus was on drawing people to the area,” Antaramian said. And as visitors increased, so did the number of local residents. The city has seen a 33 percent increase in population since the 1980s and is now the fourth largest city in Wisconsin and the fourth largest city on the western shore of Lake Michigan.
With an opportunity to look at how a similar town has made progressive changes, Meer and City Planner Craig Phillips outlined what the city has already done as well as what is planned for future improvements.
Meer mentioned the work that is being done on the Downtown Action Agenda with HyettPalma Inc., the new police station planned for the site of the former Eastport School building, the Fedder’s Alley restoration project, the potential acquisition of Artspace to occupy the city’s Warren Building and the implementation of the Lake Michigan Gateway Implementation Strategy as ways the city has already planned on moving forward in a positive way.
Extensive work has already been done on the city’s two major thoroughfares (Franklin Street and Michigan Boulevard), newer attractive wayfinding signs have already made the North End more attractive and Elston Grove, the city’s oldest residential neighborhood, recently endured a full streetscape project that has seen results in the form of reduced crime, sanitary sewer upgrades and more attractive greenways and signage.
The Gateway Implementation Strategy is something Phillips said is “one of our most important focuses right now.”
“This is an effort to strategize the common elements that have been brought up in plans throughout the years,” he said. This includes the redevelopment of key parcels of land on the North End, streetscaping and urban design enhancements, pedestrian improvements, bridge enhancements and alternate access to Washington Park.
Phillips noted after the meeting that “shovels will be in the ground” for the first projects approved as part of that strategy sometime in 2014.
During a press session following the gathering, Michigan City First Ward Councilman Richard Murphy said the Route 12 corridor, from Sheridan Avenue east to the area just past the Blue Chip Casino, is another major focus of the city.
“Right now there is nothing that announces Michigan City there,” he said. “People can drive right through and miss the lakefront and miss the Uptown Arts District. We need to capitalize on these avenues.”
Phillips agreed that the U.S. 12/Franklin Street area will be another area of focus, in addition to traffic flow on the North End. Currently, Pine Street, Franklin Street (between 4th and 9th streets), and Washington Street all run one-way, creating a circular flow to and from U.S. 12.
He said studies have shown that “having two-way traffic flow in a commercial corridor is critical.”
And while much of the focus has been on the North End and downtown Michigan City, Phillips also has sights on efforts regarding neighborhood planning and building a strategy for the Highway 212 corridor and the Michigan City Municipal Airport nearby.
Meer said signs on the eastbound lanes of Interstate 94 were placed this year informing travelers of Michigan City’s access to Lake Michigan and Washington Park have worked thus far, and a South End Gateway Plan is in the works to improve that end of town as well.
Michigan City is on the rise, as noted by Michigan City Area Schools Superintendent Dr. Barbara Eason-Watkins, referring to the slogan MCAS coined while requesting citizens vote for a referendum to help the schools last month. And although the referendum was defeated at the polls, the superintendent gave a passionate, motivating speech about the future of education in the city during the question and answer session of Wednesday’s meeting.
“There are great things happening with the schools but we have more work to do and have some tough decisions ahead,” Eason-Watkins said. “But just know that our theme is ‘City’s on the Rise’ and we are working side-by-side with Mayor Meer and the business community to ensure that Michigan City becomes the premier destination that we all seek to have.”
The superintendent recognized that education is integral to the improvement of the community as a whole, and assured the city she is dedicated to “ensuring we have a quality school system here.”
The Mayor, speaking after the meeting, agreed, and once again turned to that other destination spot on the other side of the lake as an example.
“The school system in Kenosha is exceptional,” he said, as Antaramian nodded in agreement.
The direction of Michigan City is a positive one, Antaramian said.
“I think everyone seems to be on the same concept of moving forward, which is exciting,” he said. “Tying the public into the electorate is important because projects don’t happen without the public buying into them.”
“The city is on the right track, they are doing the things they need to do and there is some potential here for wonderful results,” Antaramian added.
Don Babcock, NIPSCO’s director of economic development, and State Sen. Jim Arnold also gave raving reviews about the direction of the city.
“We’ve laid out today the process to move this forward,” Babcock said. “Now we need your positive input and energy to make it happen.”
Arnold, who is a native of Michigan City, said he is always proud of his hometown, and thrilled with the direction it’s headed.
“This will always be my community,” he said.
Melissa Wood of Horizon Bank, the primary organizer of the NOW meeting, said the gathering was beyond what she expected. And while the vision for greatness hasn’t changed since Wednesday morning, the meeting only provided further motivation to get things done.
“Our goal was to get 100 people to come out,” she said. “But we had nearly 200 people here today and it was comforting to see people get involved and give great feedback.”