Blight Fight: See how Muskegon is combating one of its biggest problems

Posted at 5:48 PM, Jul 12, 2017
and last updated 2017-07-12 18:30:52-04

MUSKEGON, Mich. --   The vision is becoming reality for Muskegon officials, business owners and residents who, for years, have been bothered by blight.

All around town, run-down properties, litter, and crime are decreasing. Home ownership is up and reliance on police and public works in many parts of the city are becoming less and less.

The shift is the result of a 3-year-old initiative to fight the issue, and according to those paying attention, it’s working.

“Things began to rapidly change,” said Director of Public Safety Jeff Lewis, walking through an 11-block area outside downtown dubbed the Nelson 11. “Everything that could hurt a neighborhood, was happening here.”

But now, three years into the blight fight, things are shaping up nicely for the Nelson 11, chosen specifically for its proximity to the issue. It’s a promising sign that the initiative is working.

“When I came here in 2012, all there were, were these older buildings,” said Chief Lewis. “They had boards in the windows, [but] you go there today, it’s a vibrant little business district.”

“It’s much easier to resolve the crime issues – and a lot of times the crime issues go – when the blight goes.”

The city spent $2 million on a handful of new homes, most of which have already been sold.

They revitalized a park, provided trash bins to decrease litter, demolished many of the abandoned properties that sat there, and started an Adopt-A-Lot program that’s put the care of over 150 city lots in the hands of responsible and concerned citizens and groups.

“These are havens for crime,” said Chief Lewis. “People have placed guns there, they’ve dropped drugs there, they meet there because of this vacant, isolated property. When we take these down, that goes away. They don’t do that anymore. All of a sudden now we can focus on another part of the city.”

It’s become a cooperative effort not just on the part of city officials like Chief Lewis and City Manager Frank Peterson, but also by local business owners and residents who have taken matters into their own hands.

“I did not want Muskegon to be a dumping ground,” said Ted Fricano, owner of Fricano Place and Fricano’s Muskegon Pizza downtown. “I have very, very high expectations for the city that I work in.”

Fricano has become a champion for downtown redevelopment, and agrees with Chief Lewis in that the recent changes have been the result of businesses, residents and officials finally being on the same page.

“One of the ways we prepare is that we make everyone accountable,” he said. “City Hall - paid employees - need to be accountable, and so do all of us business owners. When that happens I think wonderful prosperity can happen.”

Dolly Hipchen, a 37-year Muskegon resident in the Nelson 11 and member of the St. Joseph Block Club, agrees.

“The city is doing their part, and we’re going to do our part to make sure that they hear the full story of what the problems are,” said Hipchen. “Now the odds have tipped in our favor.”

The city also got clever with its rental properties. Because, Chief Lewis says, so many have burned down or become unlivable, the city required all rental properties to be equipped with a $10,000 structure insurance policy, which insures only the structure of the home.

That way, should a demolition be needed, the policy covers the costs – not the taxpayers. Chief Lewis says it’s saved citizens hundreds of thousands of dollars

Chief Lewis likened the initiative to cutting your lawn – you need to do it often for it to be effective. That mentality on blight is one that’s been adopted and highly effective in Muskegon.

“We feel like we have been listened to,” said Fricano. “That’s a very positive thing when Muskegon residents and business owners like myself make a statement and we are listened to.”