Editor's note: This is the first article in a series looking at downtown Houghton and the progress it has made over the last five years.
HOUGHTON - For the city of Houghton, a $25,000 investment in the HyettPalma downtown blueprint plan in 2005 ended up being just the right piece of the puzzle needed to secure millions of dollars of grants to completely rejuvenate a once-dying downtown area.
"In 2004, we were having more people exit downtown than we had coming in, and I wasn't able to get any spark out of people to gain any momentum," City Manager Scott MacInnes said. "There was a lot of potential, but we needed a spark to get us going."
Daily Mining Gazette/Michael H. Babcock
The Rhythm building, located on the 400 block of Shelden Avenue, was an early sign of the success of the HyettPalma plan as the city was able to secure a large grant to help renovate the building, eventually winning the Signature Building of the Year award.
A 50/50 grant became available to create a plan, and MacInnes jumped at the chance. In early September 2005, the plan was in, and MacInnes jumped again, this time to implement the plan.
"They identified a lot of things that we were looking at, and we immediately went to work on some of them, such as the new public library," MacInnes said. "We started looking at grants for the streetscape project as well, and immediately hired U.P. Engineering to do our streetscape and facade study."
That study, teamed with the HyettPalma plan, was then passed around to granting agencies, which seemed to be popping up at just the right time for Houghton.
A facade program was adopted by the state, a Vibrant Cities Grant was made available and a Signature Building Grant was offered.
MacInnes immediately applied for these grants, and at each step of the way impressed the granting agencies with an in-depth plan of attack.
"Without the HyettPalma plan, or the facade plan, I don't think very many of these pieces would have fallen into place," MacInnes said. "It's key to have a plan that you're working on and follow it, showing the state what you're doing."
Early on the plan included removing the skyways, creating the Franklin Square Islands, the new Portage Lake District Library, a historic walking tour, the Carnegie Museum and the momentum peaked in the summer of 2009 with the streetscape project.
"We're farther along than I thought we could ever be," MacInnes said. "At the time we did the HyettPalma there wasn't programs for this stuff, so I was finding it difficult to do these things financially. Right after we got the plans, though, these programs came and we were ready to go."
"I kept telling council, 'Something is going to happen with new programs, so we have to be ready to move fast.'"
And move fast they did, as they were the first to apply for the signature building program, which culminated with Rhythm opening a completely revamped storefront, and were the only city to complete its $1 million vibrant city grants in time.
"We're lucky to have a very progressive city council and planning commission," MacInnes said. "A lot of communities spend a lot of time debating the issues, and if you do that you're going to lose out on opportunities to cities like Houghton, where if we have a plan that's been approved, we're able to chase these grants."
While most of the infrastructure work is completed, MacInnes knows the work isn't done yet.
"We're really focused on trying to fill the buildings, and we currently have four more facades we're looking at going on a grant for," MacInnes said.
MacInnes said the next step is to release signage for the area and a new downtown Houghton website in the near future, and discussions of moving the highway traffic to Montezuma Avenue have continued.
Michael H. Babcock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.