By Dina Kaur, Maggie Livingston and Caroline Miller
Great Lakes Echo
Editor’s note: A recent study evaluated the quality of 1,322 U.S. small cities by five measures. This story is part of a series taking a closer look at one measure as it relates to the 39 Michigan cities in the study.
FLINT – Downtown Flint has dining and shopping options, hotels, movie theaters and small businesses – but few pedestrians.
Flint is a scary place to live, said Daniel Williams, 38, who grew up in the city, left it as a teenager and has now returned. “You have to protect yourself on a daily basis.”
That is not a universal view held by the city’s residents.
“I work here, all of my people are here, I think it’s great,” said 10-year resident Rebecca Look. “It’s affordable. You gotta deal with some inconveniences but it’s worth it.
Flint ranked the worst for economic health in Michigan small cities in a recent report by WalletHub, a personal finance organization that tracks financial and other trends.
The study evaluated U.S. cities with populations between 25,000 and 100,000. Economic health is one of five factors it weighed when ranking roughly 1,300 small cities in terms of livability. (The other measures are affordability, education and health, quality of life and safety.)
To evaluate economic health, the study looked at population, job and income growth, along with the unemployment rate.
The five best Michigan small cities for economic health were Troy, Novi, Royal Oak, Rochester Hills and Farmington Hills, the report said. The worst five were Flint, Saginaw, Burton, Eastpointe and Mount Pleasant.
Although she’s a Flint fan, Look agrees with the city’s low economic health ranking.
“It’s our lack of federal funding for our educational system,” Look said. “The falling apart of the public schools has really been catastrophic for the community, which happened sort of subsequently from the automotive industry bailing up out of here.”
The economy is the way that humans interact with each other to produce goods and services, said Khalfani Stephens, Flint’s director of economic development. Health is a general state of well-being.
So economic health is the general well-being of the production of goods and services in each area, he said.
“Depending on how you want to slice it, the economic health of the city of Flint is good, fair or poor,” Stephens said.
For industrial development, it is good. The city has a lot of industrial projects that are either recently completed or underway, he said. It has a low vacancy rate and high demand for new industrial buildings.
In the housing market, the general economic health is poor, he said. The city has had few new housing starts in the last 20 years. Housing stock is aging and there isn’t high demand for the stock that is available.
Studies recognize a high demand for the housing that the city needs, he said.
Commercial economic health is fair, Stephens said. The vacancy rates of retail and office spaces aren’t high, but there isn’t the same demand for them as in the industrial sector, which is pushing for more space.
Improving economic health starts with people, he said.
“The city of Flint is taking a very strong stance on what we are doing to encourage more people to be able to be in this community,” he said.
And it is leading a new wave of thought for economic development.
For the better part of 50 years, attracting businesses was the core focus of economic development, he said.
In the past 10 years, that position has softened. Flint is working on the idea of economic gardening, Stephens said. That means instead of finding companies to bring to the community, to instead focus on growing companies already there.
“We’ve gone a step further than that and said wait a minute, every company needs the same basic resource – people,” Stephens said. “So, if we have enough people, we will have economic development.
“What are we doing to make people be able to be and want to be in this community?”
Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley said he is unsurprised by the ranking, pointing out the fragile budget and a loss of industry and employment that the city has faced and will continue to face.
Neeley said the city faces economic challenges beyond those that are national in scope. Locally there is also the problem of having a billion-dollar company, General Motors, leave the community.
With much of Flint relying on GM jobs and income, the corporation’s absence hurt the community to the point where residents are still dealing with the consequences, he said.
Flint is doing many things to overcome its economic shortcomings, including attracting new business, repurposing property and regenerating the tax base, Neeley said. But the community needs to heal mentally and spiritually to see real change.
“We just talked about dollars and cents but our mentality, our mindset, has to change as well in order for the area in which we inhabit changes,” said Neeley. “So, we have to be able to have a level of growth mentally to be able to grow and help our economy out.”
Flint’s economic health took a hit in 2020, said Tiffany Sommers, owner of Café Rhema, a coffee shop that’s been in the city’s downtown eight years.
“In 2021, we’ve definitely seen it come back, we’re still not where we want to be,” Sommers said. “Not only personally here, but I think all of downtown still struggles a little bit, because we got students back which is good, but we still don’t have all the workers downtown.”
The number of potential customers downtown still isn’t where the owners want them to be, but they’re better than they were, Sommers said.
Flint offered some grants in early 2020 to help local businesses stay open, she said.
General Motors gave a small business grant to Café Rhema and 10 to 15 other businesses. This allowed the cafe to get an espresso machine so it could keep making coffee.
Some businesses downtown helped support them by asking for catering services, Sommers said.
Ohui Fletcher has owned the Mad Hatter in Flint for six years. The men’s clothing store has been there since 1983. Flint’s economic health is better now, but it could still be improved, she said. Her business is steady.
“A business is something where a lot of people are looking for a lot of money but I’m just enjoying myself, I’m not looking for money,” Fletcher said.
The health of the local economy spills over into other community assets.School systems are an important indicator of a healthy economy, said Steven Miller, an economics professor at Michigan State University. The average educational attainment of the workforce and the ability to take up educational opportunities are both associated with a growing and more stable economy, he said.
Residents of Troy, which ranks best in the WalletHub report for economic health, praise that community’s schools.
Most of the study’s 10 best cities in Michigan for economic health are on the east side of the state, close to Detroit.
Troy resident Tavisha Minhas said she agrees with the ranking because of Troy’s educational system and opportunities. A healthy economy correlates with the number of degree holders in a home, Minhas said.
“Here I feel like all our neighbors and the people we meet, they have at least one college degree in the household and that adds to the overall health of the city,” Minhas said. “There are more opportunities for employment here.”
Strong household incomes contribute to a city’s economic health, she said.
“A school district is only as good as the tax money it gets, and you get more tax money in a city where there are people who are earning more money,” Minhas said. “It’s a vicious circle and it all contributes to economic health.”
Troy is a great place for small businesses to grow and the people of Troy have money to spend on them, she said.
Kelly Jones, a Troy resident for 22 years, said diversity is a key feature that makes the city’s economic health so high.
“I just don’t think you can talk about the economic health of Troy without talking about the diversity of Troy,” Jones said. “It’s the first thing you see.”
Troy is a positive, forward-thinking city that engages with various cultures, ethnicities and diversities, she said.
“It helps to prepare our neighbors and our children for how to live in a global environment because the world is becoming smaller and smaller as we become more and more global,” Jones said.