Star Communities: Niles is Nifty

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Star Communities are those communities that have shined above the rest. They may have overcome immense tragedy, or they have simply excelled beyond expectations for a town of their size. These are example communities that are role models for those who strive to be better. The community of Niles, Michigan, is the latest to receive this designation.

For many communities downtowns were the center of activity in their early years. Unfortunately, for many the status of the downtown has waned over the years as the target for commercial development shifted to highways on the periphery of the community. Although the community of Niles did witness disinvestment in their downtown core, hard work has reversed that trend. Their downtown has now returned to prominence as the commercial and cultural hub for the community. That is why Niles has been selected as the next Rural Resurrection Star Community.

The history of the Niles area in southeastern Michigan goes as far back as the 1600s. The French built Fort St. Joseph in 1697. After a number of events through the years, the fort was occupied by France, Spain, Britain, and the United States, earning it the nickname of the Fort of Four Flags. The town itself was settled in 1827 along the banks of the St. Joseph River. It has since become a bedroom community a short distance away from South Bend and Notre Dame University. It is also a stop for two separate Amtrak lines that connect Chicago to areas to the east.

A Downtown that Draws Statewide Interest

Back in 2019 the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) awarded two small businesses funding through a pilot program entitled the Match on Main. The Match on Main Program provided grants ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 to eligible businesses in Michigan Main Street communities for specific projects.

The community of Niles was selected as one of the two communities in the entire state to benefit from this pilot program.

Niles wasn’t selected at random. A community of 12,000 residents in southwest Michigan, Niles has become a shining example of Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Main Street Program. Since joining the Michigan Main Street Program in 2004, Niles has seen over $10.9 million in new private investment. They’ve witnessed 124 new businesses launched and 107 façade improvements due to the program as well.

Family Fun - Niles, Michigan

Family Fun – Niles, Michigan, Courtesy Niles Main Street

Always Active

One of the keys to Niles’ success is that they are always active. It looks as though they always have at least one project in the works. Their efforts started in earnest in 2001 when they started working with the National Main Street Center.

Their work continued with the addition of the downtown district to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. This act ensured that the historic buildings that gave the downtown character would be preserved.

In 2012 the Niles Entrepreneurial and Culinary Incubator was created. Designed to help start new food-related businesses, it has already delivered on its promise. The Crumb Crossing Bakery started up in the incubator and has since moved to a new location with the success it has had.

The City Council also purchased the Galley Building in 2012. Formerly the home of a JC Penny store, the property had become vacant and dilapidated. Eventually, it came up as a tax sale and the community saw the need to purchase it to have a say in its future. The once forlorn building has since become the largest private investment in downtown Niles in two decades. A software company named Ultra Comp invested over $1 million to rehabilitate the building for its own use.

These are not simple, short-term projects. They each take significant time and unrelenting commitment.

Downtown Niles

Downtown Niles, Courtesy Mainstreet Niles

On the Hunt

Another key to Niles’ success is that they are regularly on the hunt for more funding. Those involved aren’t just going back to the City Council to fully fund a project. They aren’t leaning heavily on philanthropic souls to front the entire bill. They are putting in the groundwork to pull in grant funds regularly.

In 2003 a grant helped fund the removal of several aluminum storefronts downtown, revealing the intricate and beautiful historic architecture beneath. MEDC awarded the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) which, together with private and city funds, revitalized two blocks of Main Street. Beyond just the basic facade restoration, the grant also provided funding for streetscape improvements including brick sidewalks and numerous brick flower beds.

Then there’s the Match on Main mentioned earlier in this post. The City of Niles selected Gabrizio Italian Café and Bakery as one of the participants in the pilot grant project. Grant funds from the new program can go towards interior building renovations, furniture and fixtures, permanent equipment, point of sale systems, marketing expenses, and inventory.

Gabrizio, opened by owner Desyree Alberganti, is a European-style bakery offering innovative cakes, daily baked pastries. If you are even remotely hungry, don’t take a look at Gabrizio’s webpage, the drool factory will go into high gear.

But the grant awards through Match on Main didn’t stop there. When the program was awarded additional funding, MEDC announced another round of grants and two more businesses in Niles were among those who landed funding. Traphouse 24 and the Niles Brewing Company were included in the second round of grant winners.

In total, Niles has received five grants through the Match on Main program. It has helped start three businesses and expand two others in downtown Niles.

Gabrizio Italian Café and Bakery

Gabrizio Italian Café and Bakery, Courtesy Niles Main Street

Understanding the Importance of Events and Activities

For downtowns to survive in this economy, communities need to recognize the need to diversify the offerings of the area to retain economic sustainability. No longer will it work to just rehabilitate run-down commercial structures and hope to draw in new businesses.

Community leaders in Niles understand this and have incorporated events and activities in close proximity to their downtown to help energize the area. Riverfront Park, which stretches for about a mile and a half along the east side of the St. Joseph River, abuts downtown and hosts a number of sizeable events that spill over into the downtown area. The park plays host to the Niles Riverfest, the Bluegrass Festival, the Hunter Ice Festival, and the Apple Festival Parade.

Niles also plays host to a continuous number of events that activate the downtown on a regular basis. The event calendar on the Downtown Niles webpage is stock full of activities that draw in a wide range of people from young adults to families and seniors.

Regular activities are an important aspect of energizing your downtown and getting people out of their cars. “They are our lifeblood,” states Croteau, “It is not just what we do, but what we push for businesses to do.” Apothica Teas, a Victorian Steampunk-themed tea shop opened by Niles native Laura Hollister witnessed a significant jump in sales during the Hunter Ice Festival. Potential customers that typically drove past the shop without stopping were coming in to check it out during the Festival. Many of these would become repeat customers after their first experience during the event.

Activities In Downtown Niles

Activities In Downtown Niles, Courtesy Mainstreet Niles

Meeting at the Node

Like the downtowns of most communities, downtown Niles was hit hard by the pandemic. With many people staying home, the retail businesses suffered. Restaurants without drive-thrus, like those in downtowns, suffered as well. Making things worse for restaurants was an executive order from Michigan Governor Whitmer that prohibited indoor dining.

However, City Administrator Ric Huff came up with the idea of an outdoor dining space for the restaurants. A space with picnic tables and a fire pit that would draw people back to the downtown core. “It was done out of necessity,” states Lisa Croteau, Niles Main Street Director of Marketing and Administration. Restaurants without a drive-thru only had curbside service as a means to keep their business going. An outdoor dining venue for the downtown businesses was the best solution to a bad situation.

With City Council approval, the Node was born and a portion of 2nd Street was shut down to make way. Since that time, the community has embraced the space and it was routinely filled with programming to keep it, and the surrounding stores, active. The Node even drew people in during the cold Michigan winter months with an ornate firepit that helped to keep people warm.

Several events were regularly programmed for the Node including live bands, yoga, book club meetings, and fundraisers. Yes, even those addictive cookies that ruin everyone’s diet plans have been sold in that space. The event space even has its own Facebook page.

Onward and Upward

Unfortunately, The Node was shut down after a few months of use. But there has been a resurgence of interest in reopening the popular venue. Some community leaders are looking into ways to create a long-term version of The Node that will benefit residents and downtown businesses for years to come.

Even representatives at the state level have been researching the success of Niles and other communities to create such spaces. According to Lisa they are working on a Winter Cities Guide that will provide information on how to conjure interest in other communities and replicate that success.

As for Niles Main Street. They are not sitting back and enjoying the successes of the past few years. In addition to working on bringing back The Node, they are constantly working on other ways to energize downtown Niles, including looking for businesses like Ultra Comp to continue to invest in downtown.

The Success Snowball

The resurgence of downtown Niles wasn’t an overnight success. There are no shortcuts to an active, vibrant, and economically sustainable downtown. It starts with a small snowball. An action that forms the ball and gets the ball rolling may just be the toughest part. But as you keep pushing that snowball down the hill the successes make for a larger, more robust ball of snow that represents just how important the downtown has become to your community.

Niles is a shining example of this snowball. The vibrancy and the activity in their downtown have transformed it into something that visitors are drawn to and residents are proud of. This is why Niles, Michigan, has been named the latest Star Community.

Activities In Downtown Niles, Courtesy Mainstreet Niles

Activities In Downtown Niles, Courtesy Mainstreet Niles

Star Communities

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