Young people and working families are having an increasingly difficult time staying in Marquette, and in addition to a lack of affordable housing, this is also due to a lack of economic opportunity. Although the City government cannot “create jobs” in a traditional sense and is not responsible for education and workforce development in Marquette, the City does have a vital role to play in creating opportunities to allow young people and working-class families to not just survive in Marquette, but thrive. As Marquette grows and changes, our downtown and our economy must also adjust to the new realities facing us in the 21st century.
Here are 10 achievable ideas to drive inclusive, sustainable economic growth and improve the quality of life for young people and working-class residents of Marquette:
- Take advantage of north Marquette’s “Opportunity Zone” status. The entire north side of Marquette was recently designated as an “Opportunity Zone” in the 2017 federal tax law. This essentially provides huge federal tax incentives for investors to create new businesses in north Marquette, especially in tech, advanced manufacturing, and other rapidly growing 21st-century STEAM industries. With many vacant properties in north Marquette, most notably the City-owned Cliffs-Dow property and the Presque Isle Power Plant, the Marquette Opportunity Zone could attract hundreds of new jobs and revitalize the entire north side of Marquette.
- Continue to support entrepreneurs & retain existing small businesses. Marquette can’t fall into the “Amazon trap” of fighting with other communities for the next big, out-of-town business that’s going to employ a thousand people. Instead, we should try to nurture 10 homegrown local businesses each employing 100 people, or 100 small businesses each employing 10 people. In my conversations with local small business owners, the top three concerns that come up again and again are a lack of qualified workers, a lack of flexibility and support from the City, and a lack of affordable housing. We need to not only support small businesses, but we also need to make sure that the people who work at those small businesses are actually able to find an affordable place to live so that they can spend money, be a good neighbor, send their kids to school, pay taxes, and maybe one day start their own business right here in Marquette. That is what a truly sustainable, fair, and resilient small-town economy looks like.
- Diversify our economy with light manufacturing. Marquette has become too reliant on tourism and low-wage service-industry jobs: we need economic growth that goes beyond condos and coffee shops, and we need blue-collar jobs that pay more than $4.00 per hour plus tip. The answer is 21st-century light manufacturing. For example, Extreme Tool & Engineering in Wakefield hires students straight out of high school at a starting wage of $15.00 per hour, provides on the job training, and employs 150 men and women making steel molds. The key? High-quality vocational education in local high schools, access to an airport, and 1 GB industrial-grade broadband Internet. If Marquette could offer all three of those community assets, we could have multiple businesses like Extreme Tool in the City. If it’s possible in Wakefield, why not in Marquette?
- Take advantage of the opportunities offered by the marijuana industry. Rather than letting the rapid changes that have come with the legalization of recreational marijuana simply happen to us, the City of Marquette has taken a proactive approach to marijuana policy over the past 2-3 years. As a City Commissioner, I voted in favor of allowing marijuana businesses in commercial districts in Marquette, a conditional rezoning request to allow a marijuana business to be developed on a vacant property in south Marquette, and a new City policy allowing public marijuana events. Marijuana is legal in Michigan – why not support this new industry in Marquette just as much as our celebrated craft beer industry? As far as I am concerned, there’s not much of a difference between the two.
- Establish a fast, reliable downtown public bus loop. The City’s current Strategic Plan recommends that the City work with MarqTran to provide reliable, efficient public transit that full-time Marquette residents, visitors, and students will actually use. This downtown public bus loop would potentially connect the new hospital, downtown Marquette, the MarqTran depot, and NMU, and possibly other popular destinations as well. Unlike current MarqTran routes, this Marquette bus service would include marked stops with covered shelters and a regular, reliable schedule – these shelters could also be great potential locations for free public Wi-Fi routers. This would cost about $10,000 per bus stop and $135,000 for bus sharing with MarqTran, with weekly operating costs of $1,890, or $98,280 per year. This funding could be obtained through federal or state grants, and operating costs could be covered by the City to provide fare-free transit, or by just 270 passengers per day each paying a $1.00 fare.
- Provide free public Wi-Fi downtown. High-speed Internet is critical for 21st-century businesses. The City should provide free high-speed public Wi-Fi in the downtown business district, just like the village of L’Anse and the cities of Holland, MI and Minneapolis, MN. If L’Anse can do it, why can’t we?
- Make Marquette a destination for self-employed online entrepreneurs. About 600 people in Marquette earn their living from home, but we rarely think about these self-employed people with very small businesses that are often knowledge-based and reliant on online sales. Marquette already has a great quality of life, access to a university, and a relatively affordable cost of living – co-working spaces like Campfire CoWorks, fast & free public Wi-Fi downtown, reliable public transit, more affordable housing, and access to high-speed broadband Internet will all make Marquette an even better place for these 21st-century entrepreneurs.
- Use Brownfield and Downtown Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to support local small businesses rather than focusing primarily on large mega-projects. Brownfield Plans and other forms of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) are powerful tools to drive local economic growth, but they can also be double-edged swords if over-employed. The City Commission should be more selective in which projects we award Brownfield TIF to, and rather than focusing on huge projects involving hundreds of millions of dollars which take decades to generate any local tax revenue, we should help local entrepreneurs redevelop blighted properties by taking on smaller projects, like the recent Nestledown Inn and 231 West Patisserie projects.
- Reduce unnecessary commercial parking & permitting requirements. The City often requires businesses to have an excessive amount of off-street parking, and requires special permits and fees to serve food or beverages or sell merchandise outdoors. This stifles innovation, increases the costs of building or expanding a business in Marquette, and leads to an increasingly large amount of valuable downtown space being taken up by parking spaces which are empty much of the time. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the City temporarily waived many of these requirements for small businesses with much success and no major negative side effects. We can support local businesses, encourage economic development and innovation, and add to the vibrancy of our commercial districts by making these temporary changes permanent.
- Support the redevelopment of the old hospital. This large, vacant hospital campus, which was once a middle-class residential neighborhood, is surrounded by walkable neighborhoods to the south and west, NMU’s campus to the north, and the Third Street Corridor to the east. This is a prime location for redevelopment, and Duke LifePoint recently announced a pending deal to transfer the property to the NMU Foundation for $1.00 and provide $10 million in redevelopment funds. The NMU Foundation plans to create a Request for Proposals (RFP) to find a qualified developer to redevelop the property. The City should support the redevelopment of this property, which will almost certainly require a City Brownfield Plan and will likely include a mix of residential and commercial land uses. It is also critical that the City use its leverage as the provider of crucial Brownfield TIF to extract firm commitments that this project will produce a large amount of new affordable housing and other public benefits – this project will be a huge opportunity for the City, and it needs to benefit all Marquette residents, not just the university or people who can afford luxury condos.