Saving downtown -- from itself
Susan Harrison Wolffis: Saving downtown -- from itself
The truth is, we were this close in the mid-1970s to knocking down the Michigan Theater, the gorgeous space we now know as the Frauenthal Theater in downtown Muskegon
Thirty-odd years ago, the wrecking
ball was poised and ready to swing in the name of urban renewal, aimed
directly at the big old theater standing on the corner of Third Street
and Western Avenue.
The plan was well-intentioned, even if in some people’s minds, misguided. Others called it progress.
Down went the Occidental Hotel, the Regent Theater (which some insist was even more beautiful than the Michigan), the uniquely shaped Flatiron Building, little shops like Newmode Hosiery and big department stores like Grossman’s that once lined Western Avenue.
For awhile, it was like being in a demolition derby downtown, everything smashed and destroyed, piles of rubble left behind. The idea was out with the old, in with a new and covered mall on what once was the community’s main street: Western Avenue. To be fair, it was considered cutting edge architecture at the time, enough that it drew national attention in urban renewal circles.
City officials from across the country came to see what Muskegon was doing, how it was resurrecting and reinventing its downtown, which had faded from glory as people moved into the suburbs — away from the urban center.
In one plan, a parking lot was needed where the old Michigan Theater, which had fallen on bad times in the 1960s and ’70s, stood. Built in 1930 at the height of the Depression, the theater was a sorry sight. No one disagreed that it had seen better days aesthetically or that it had lost the bulk of its clientele to newer, more modern movie theaters.
But there was a group of people in town, a coalition of historic preservationists, civic-minded citizens and emerging philanthropists, who put their collective feet down, and said: No, not this one. Not the Michigan. This one stays.
As the reporter who covered the arts beat in those days, I interviewed people who stood emotionally and physically in front of the wrecking ball — grandmothers who loved old buildings, guys who saved houses that became Heritage Village downtown, men and women who had too memories connected to the theater to see it go.
They saved the Michigan Theater from certain destruction. It was a heroic effort, but their work wasn’t done. The Community Foundation for Muskegon County, an emerging organization, used $475,000 of a $1.5 -million gift from Muskegon industrialist Harold Frauenthal to buy not only the theater, but the entire block from Third to Fourth streets on Western Avenue.
Together, the foundation and those willing to defy the wrecking ball saved a piece of Muskegon’s past.
In an unprecedented move, members of the town’s labor unions volunteered their time and expertise to transform what became the Hilt Building next to the theater into classrooms, meeting spaces, an art gallery and small theater.
Because of them, and more grants from the Community Foundation, the Frauenthal Center for Performing Arts rose from what could have been rubble.
The theater would need saving again. In 1995, the residents of Muskegon County voted to help fund a $7.5-million renovation of the theater and bring it back in all its historic glory.
This weekend, the Frauenthal is celebrating its 80th anniversary, a testimony to what a community can do when its people decide to preserve its past. The irony, of course, is that in doing so — in saving a bit of history — we secured our future.
Once again, downtown Muskegon is rising up, reinvented and resurging. And its cornerstone? The place that brings thousands of people through its doors every year?
That theater some people wanted destroyed, all in the name of progress.
Anonymous donor wants to add land to the City of Muskegon's Richards Park
Published: Monday, August 23, 2010, 5:56 AM
Dave Alexander | Muskegon Chronicle Dave Alexander | Muskegon Chronicle
MUSKEGON -- The donor of $4 million to the Community Foundation for Muskegon County is investigating the purchase of Muskegon River property as a gift to the city of Muskegon.
The anonymous donor is working with a environmental consulting team to make the best use of his gifts to the community, which he hopes will help the restoration of Muskegon Lake.
That environmental team has identified the Abonmarche property on a creek flowing from Sanfords Bayou directly into the south branch of the Muskegon River. The three parcels totaling 7.5 acres are on the south bank of the Sanfords Bayou creek directly across from the city's Richards Park.
Muskegon city commissioners this week heard a plan in which the donor would purchase the land from Abonmarche -- a Benton Harbor-based waterfront design and development company -- and donate it to the city.
The donor hopes the property would be open to the public but be a preserved natural area, said Cathy Brubaker-Clarke, the city's community and economic development director.
Commissioners supported the property donation and directed staff to complete the deal. "I think we ought to do it," Commissioner Larry Spataro said.
The donor also has been working with Kathy Evans, environmental planner with the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission in Muskegon.
WMSRDC continues to manage a $10 million restoration of the south shore of Muskegon Lake through a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the Great Lakes Commission. The NOAA funds are helping restore natural plants and wildlife along the shore.
If the property is donated to the city, Evans told commissioners that funds would still be available to reduce the steep slope of the property's creek bank and improve the habitat for native plants and wildlife.
The city intends to add the Abonmarche property -- valued for property taxing purposes at $106,400 -- to its Richards Park parcel, which is the site of the city's former sewer plant. Richards Park is being planned for the headquarters of the Muskegon Conservation District.
Conservation district officials are preparing a final site plan for the property that would include new offices, educational and recreational improvements to the property and overall conservation of the river environment. That plan might now include the Abonmarche land.
The Abonmarche property owners have held the site since the late 1980s when the company was investigating a marina and condominium project on adjacent Muskegon Lake property then owned by Consumers Energy. The company's Muskegon development plans never materialized.
The three parcels are west of Ottawa Street and north of Bayou Street.
The anonymous donor established a fund with the community foundation at the end of 2009. The $4 million created Fund 2012, named because the donor wants to spend the funds by the end of 2012, foundation officials have said.
City officials said they do not know whether the donor would use money from the Fund 2012 to pay for the Abonmarche property.
The donor's gift is the largest ever to the $112 million community foundation. He has not been identified, beyond being described as an out-of-town physician with deep family ties in Muskegon. He also funded two post-doctoral research positions with the Grand Valley State University's Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon.
If you didn't attend our Annual Gathering on June 30, 2010, you missed a pretty fun party! In addition to reporting on 2009, thanking our outgoing trustees, and introducing the incoming trustees, we also planned a special presentation, some surprise birthday gifts, and a sculpture unveiling in honor of the Frauenthal's 80th birthday. Read this article from the Chronicle if you want to find out the details of the event.
Here's what some others have said about the day:
"Fantastic to see such a
large turnout for the Foundation's event...As Tom [Harryman] noted in
his perfect "powerpoint" presentation . . . we live and work in a wonderful
section of the world. While we may all champion separate projects, our end goal
is the same. Keep spreading the word. I hear it every October from
visitors from around the globe . . . "This is a very cool
- Ron Pesch, champion of all things Buster Keaton
"Congrats to the Damfinos and the Community Foundation for Muskegon County on the unveiling of the new Buster
Keaton statue downtown! It is a great addition to the cityscape and a memorable
reminder of the arts legacy of Muskegon. Thanks also to the Community
Foundation for its support of our vibrant arts community--at its annual event
on Wednesday, Tom Harryman gave a beautiful, inspiring speech about the
Frauenthal and the arts in Muskegon, and seven arts organizations received
$8,000 each to spend within their organizations in honor of the Frauenthal
celebrating it's 80th birthday in 2010. Congratulations to all who received the
grants and thanks to Tom for reminding us why we are so passionate about our
- The Lakeshore Arts and Music Association
"Thank you. We are
still surprised and thrilled by the grant. I have my board actively coming up
with ideas on how we can contribute more to the community in our pursuit of
community concert band excellence for the enjoyment and enrichment of our
- Howard Meade, West Michigan Concert Winds
"Once again, oh my goodness, thank
you! I cannot believe that generosity of the Foundation and your
staff. We’ve been buzzing about it all
day in White
Lake- saw Judy from ACWL
this morning and we got to squeal together. Thanks once
- Cindy Beth Davis, Howmet Playhouse
"I still remember the $2,500 scholarship I received from a Community
Foundation donor that helped put me through my first year of Engineering School at Purdue. Great
- former scholarship recipient, from Facebook
"You guys sure know how to throw a party! I’m so sorry I
missed the celebration, but what a terrific surprise! We’re already
brainstorming like mad (mainly letting loose with some previously ‘shelved’
ideas) and having a great time speculating how to make the best use of the
grant. Thank you and the foundation so very
- Judy Wisniewski, Arts Council of White Lake
- Holly Hughes, via Facebook
- Martha Colburn, via Facebook
Tribute to Pat Bard
Pat Bard, a wife, mother, grandmother, business-woman, travel agent, teacher, and friend, passed away on May 21, 2010. Her husband of 53 years, Doug, visited with us recently to establish the Patricia A. Bard Nursing Scholarship Fund to honor her memory. They had talked of a scholarship fund in the past, and, toward the end of her fight against cancer, together chose the field of nursing as the focus. While Pat's career involved the world of business and travel, she and Doug both experienced first-hand the impact that caring, well-trained nurses can make. The scholarship fund in her name will make an impact, too, on the opportunities available to nursing students.
To learn more about our friend Pat Bard, you can read her life story.
$4M Gift From Unnamed Donor
Foundation Receives Largest Gift
An out-of-town physician with deep family ties to Muskegon is supporting the restoration of Muskegon Lake by creating a new $4 million fund at the Community Foundation for Muskegon County.The unnamed donor created the foundation's Fund 2012 at the end of 2009. The $4 million gift is the largest ever received by the foundation. The Foundation, which received its first donation in 1971, had grown to $112 million at the end of last year.
The donor established Fund 2012 after lengthy research and investigation, according to foundation President Chris McGuigan. The strategy is to make a significant impact by spending the funds by 2012, with a majority of the grants expected to be focused on Muskegon.
Read the May 28, 2010 story in the Muskegon Chronicle here.
Tribute to Rose Smith
Rosaline M. Smith, a former Treasurer for the City of Muskegon, passed away on Monday, April 12, 2010. She and Darrell Smith, a longtime employee of the Muskegon Post Office, cared deeply for each other and shared more than 50 years of marriage. Music was something they loved and had very much in common. In 2005, Rose created the Darrell H. and Rosaline M. Smith Fund to honor her husband, who passed away in 1999, and to provide a helping hand to graduating seniors of any Muskegon County HS who have demonstrated academic achievement and will pursue a music degree.
Rose was a very special person who brightened our world. To read her life story, click here.
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