Downtown renovations spur Marquette’s turnaround

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The vision of a few people in Marquette in the 1990s helped turn a declining mining hub on the south shore of Lake Superior into the thriving All-American community it is today.
Today, Marquette’s downtown community serves as a model and inspiration to other cities. Downtown businesses are thriving. New façades invite people to linger awhile longer looking at inviting displays in windows. People bustle along the sidewalks, able to work, live and play all within a short walk. A community center hosts farmer’s markets during the warm months and ice skating during winter. Development along the Lake Superior shoreline welcomes visitors and parks provide recreation to residents. Even two Presidents of the United States visited within a few years of each other to praise what was being done right.

Less than 20 years ago, few could even dream of what the aging city on the south shore of Lake Superior would someday become. Marquette’s downtown blocks were tired: sagging awnings over dirt-coated windows looking into empty store fronts, vacant city blocks that no longer remembered the glory years. An old rail yard lay empty, polluting land just feet from the largest, freshest lake in the world. Nearby mines were closing and population in the region was quickly declining.

Vision, planning, effort and guts from many people were required to turn things around, but credit is often given to two projects that served as catalysts: The Landmark Inn and Upfront & Company.

The first is a hotel that stood vacant for years -- "burned out," says Christine Pesola, general manager of The Landmark Inn. A once grand hotel served as a home and sewer system for vagrant birds. It now hosts two bars, a restaurant and 62 guest rooms.

The Upfront building, located just a block away along Front Street, is home to a popular restaurant downstairs, four storefronts at street level and space for nine offices on the top floor. Before, it faced the wrecking ball five times, as it threatened the safety of those who walked nearby.

DDA Executive Director Mona Lang says that since the renovation of the Landmark Inn and Upfront & Company, $40-60 million has been invested in the district.
The two projects were begun within months of each other in 1995 and opened to the public a few years later. The rest, as they say, is history. Other decaying buildings were purchased, renovated and now serve as home to thriving businesses.

A third project -- renovations on the nearby Getz’s Clothiers building -- that began in 1994 was also key to the changing image of downtown.

"Success and enthusiasm breeds success and enthusiasm," Pesola says. "All of a sudden, the whole state is in a recession but Marquette isn’t."

To transform the Landmark to what it is today, the Pesolas spent $106,000 on the building in 1995 and about $6.2 million on renovations -- though approximately 25 percent of that was recaptured through tax credits, Pesola says -- during the next two years.

No one was available to do an interview on behalf of Upfront & Company, but estimates are that building owner Rhys Mussman invested many millions of dollars into the project after purchasing it in 1990 and beginning renovations in July 1995.

Investing is contagious
"I think just having the confidence, 'If you build it, they will come,' so to speak, is true," says Rock Getz, owner of Getz’s. "Downtown Marquette is really, really strong." 

Marquette Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Mona Lang says that since those original two renovations downtown, $40-60 million has been invested in the district. She estimates 2,500 people now work
Several developments are now occurring, chief among them are new condominiums and a lakefront Hampton Inn Hotel.
downtown, and notes a restaurant like Upfront and Company alone has a substantial impact of about 100 employees. Not every employer is the same size, but with 20-plus restaurants, several blocks of retail stores and many offices filled to capacity, downtown is healthier than ever.

"Any time you have someone that is willing to invest in a building like this that is falling down, it really makes a difference," Lang says. "I think it really gives people confidence. I always say it’s contagious. One investment, then the next one, then the next one."

Development of the lakeshore over the past few years has been another of the exciting happenings that can be traced back to the Landmark and Upfront projects. Founders Landing -- a 29-acre parcel of land formerly owned by the Wisconsin Central Railroad and purchased by the city of Marquette in 2001 "to foster private development and increased public access to the waterfront," according to the city’s website -- is just now coming online as it was envisioned. About $11 million was spent cleaning the area and preparing infrastructure for development.

With public funds, support from the state of Michigan and use of brownfield tax credits, several developments are now occurring. Chief among them are new condominiums and a lakefront Hampton Inn hotel. Buildings near the Founders development have also been renovated, including the Waterfront Condominiums and L'Attitude (which began its life as a foundry around the time of the Civil War) that Lang calls a "jewel of Marquette." 

"I don’t foresee the development of Founders Landing if there wasn’t a strong downtown to support that," Lang says.

Getz’s general manager Dennis Mingay sees only good things ahead and wishes he were younger so he could play an even bigger role in it.

"Everybody’s got a great attitude here," says Dennis Mingay, Getz’s general manager. "There’s a lot of great attitudes in Marquette. That’s what makes it go. Keep those attitudes and I think we’ll prosper in the future."

All photos of downtown Marquette by Shawn Malone

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Mona Lang
Executive Directory,
Marquette Downtown Development Authority

How much difference can one person or company make to a city?
I think they can make a huge difference. The right action and the right project and the right investment can turn things around.

How much can the rebirth of a downtown work attract talent and innovation?
Our downtowns are a reflection of our region. You can go to any big box (store) in Anytown, USA. There’s no uniqueness to it. But a downtown is different, and our downtown attracts not only young talent and entrepreneurs, but it helps the (Marquette General) Hospital recruit. It helps the University recruit. It’s a huge benefit.

What is one of the most important things Marquette has done right?
Staying the course. Being consistent and understanding that everything connects. Our downtown connects to our culture, to our waterfront, to our recreation. Everything connects.

Can any city do the same things and find the same successes as Marquette?
Marquette enjoys a tremendous amount of support from the community. When the city went through its last comprehensive planning process, a strong downtown was its second largest concern. It takes support of the community, of the local government. You need people who are passionate. If you have the right combination of elements, any downtown can do it. (But) it’s not easy.

What do you know now that you wish you had known at the start of this revitalization?
Making sure people are informed. Sometimes I get a little busy with my daily tests. You have to let the community know, let the world know, what path you’re on.