Open House Helps Refine the Vision for the Rise of Pontiac
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Sept. 23, 2015)
Standing at the edge of Pontiac’s Phoenix Center, with three levels of parking below and a lovely pedestrian plaza with a high quality amphitheater nearly deserted around him, Mike Stephens could not help but notice the irony of Saturday’s events.
Stephens, who is partner in two of the buildings that are attached to the Phoenix Center, took part in an open house of multiple groups who want to see the city re-open the center and stop with litigation aiming to demolish it.
Below, in a crumbling surface lot, crews prepared for a music festival. Under drizzling skies the workers lugged in fencing, seating, tables, and portable toilets. They had to add electrical, and they had to assemble the stage. The event set up seemed to take most of the parking lot, and though there are 2,500 spaces available in the Phoenix Center, it remained unused behind rusty padlocks and concrete road blocks.
Above, visitors got a peak at the sea of nearly unblemished blue seats and the acoustically-superb stage all set under a giant two-peaked pavilion. The plaza and the amphitheater were once home to music festivals, art shows and other events that community members loved and also attracted people from out of town to the city. Now the Phoenix Center is closed and a court battle wages on to determine its future.
“Look at this,” Stephens said. “We have all this, right here. The perfect place for a concert. And all that money is going to set up a stage right. It doesn’t make any sense.”
If Stephens had one thing to say about the fate of Pontiac, it would be to those who continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in court instead of investing in the city. “Get out of the way and let us rebuild Pontiac,” he said.
Ottawa Towers has an obvious stake in retaining the Phoenix Center. One building is half occupied by The State of Michigan, but the rest of the two-tower campus is empty. An apartment complex also abuts the plaza, yet the scores of residents living inside do not have access to walkways and green spaces. An agreement between Ottawa Towers and the City allows them use of the parking garage. When the City failed to maintain the deck, Stephens stepped in to keep a portion of it operational. When the City fell into Emergency Management, the Center was closed and slated to be torn down. Only the agreement with Ottawa Towers has been keeping the structure safe, temporarily, as a case makes its way through the court system.
In the meantime, Stephens’ investment sits underutilized as well.
“It costs a lot of money to move your offices to a new building and no one wants to do that when at any time you could lose all your parking,” he said.
He’s hopeful though that the Center will survive, and he’s been working with several groups to present ideas to the city for how it can be used to revitalize Downtown.
The Pontiac Holonomy Incubator was the organizer of the Open House, with groups like 21st Century Digital Learning Environments, 4H Tech Wizards, Pontiac Schools, Young Minds Can’t Be Wasted and Pontiac Time Bank among those showcasing their groups and ideas.
The overall theme was building off the ideas gathered at the first Open House, which took place a year ago. Since that time, students have been working on renderings and ideas, while business owners and community groups continue to organize and refine ideas.
One such idea is to attract colleges to the city, either one big college or a collection of satellite campuses. “The Phoenix Center would be a great venue for campus events,” said Councilperson Kermit Williams. Williams said he and other members of council support the Phoenix Center and the revitalization of Downtown, but because of the control by the State, their hands are tied. “We are kept out of the discussion just as much as the public is,” Williams said in regard to the legal proceedings. He wants the Phoenix Center open again, and is even featured in a brochure about it.
“I used to come here and watch fireworks. Rihanna got booed here. You know, there are memories. And that’s what we need. We need a place where the people of Pontiac can all come together. There’s nothing like locals being able to come Downtown, have music, go shopping. There needs to be something for people to come here for.” He said that attracting people to the center would mean more foot traffic, and more opportunity for Downtown businesses.
“We have businesses opening up, but we’re having trouble retaining them without something to draw people in,” he said.
In addition to schools and businesses, organizers have a strong focus on preparing the next generation of leaders for Pontiac. Throughout the city there are youth groups and programs, often out of churches. Bringing programs for the youth to the city center is spoken of with a zeal not often matched when communities talk about downtown development.
Tae Wallace wants to give kids opportunities like those that helped him. Wallace grew up in foster care. “People always told me what to do. I didn’t feel like I had a voice,” he said. “I went to different programs that helped me along the way though.”
Now he runs a program for over 60 kids called Young Minds Can’t be Wasted. The program is held at Refuge Temple of Deliverance, and for two years has provided a safe space for kids to learn, play, socialize in a supervised setting, and be mentored. “We work with all youth, but our main goal is to get kids whose parents are incarcerated,” Wallace said.
The idea of having space set aside in Downtown Pontiac for youth programming appeals to Wallace. “We’ve got to let these kids know they are part of the community too.”
Along those lines, 21st Century Digital Learning Environments also has their eyes on the youth, with a focus on K-12 education in design. Student projects at the open house showcased ideas for the center. Monica Williams of 21st Century is a proponent of an innovation district that would foster an atmosphere of creativity and entrepreneurship. “The Phoenix Center and Ottawa Towers could be home to an innovation district where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with start-ups business incubators and accelerators- sparking innovation and creative jobs,” reads Williams’ comments in the brochure. On the walls were pictures of prosperous innovation districts with thriving companies and public spaces, such as Campus Martius in Detroit. Additionally, Fernando Bales of FPB Studios in Pontiac, spent the last year with the Pontiac Holonomy Incubator facilitating students from his Lawrence Technological University Visual Communications course, and those student designs for the future of the Phoenix Center and Ottawa Towers were presented.
The open house attracted visitors of all ages and backgrounds, including Ashligh Altemann who grew up in Rochester but was attracted to the low cost of purchasing a home in Pontiac. She works on a community garden on Oliver Street “I love Pontiac. There are very nice people and it’s relaxed and down to earth,” she said.
The open house served as a way to strengthen connections among those working to revitalize downtown, and to bring new people into the mix. For more on the Phoenix Center visit www.pontiacphoenixcenter.com.
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Open House Helps Refine the Vision for the Rise of Pontiac