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Flint: Michigan’s newest walkable collegetown

The third and final Future Shock Commentary focused on the University of Michigan-Flint.
University Business, October 2016

In the first of our trilogy of commentaries entitled ‘Ready to Launch: New Engines of Entrepreneurial Startup’ – we featured the new Hagerman Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. This commentary provided an early national higher education media context highlighting UM-F’s downtown commitment – put in play by sponsored business incubators, product accelerators, and entrepreneurial launchpads. This commentary laid the foundation for telling the larger story of UM-F’s presence, role, and positive impact in transforming downtown Flint from its industrial past to its cosmopolitan Collegetown aspirations and growth trajectory.

In our second commentary article entitled ‘Higher Ed to the Rescue: Protecting Water Resources for the Next Generation’ – we featured UM-F’s efforts and results in addressing the Flint water catastrophe and ongoing mitigation process. This story highlighted the University’s institution-wide commitment to public health policy, clean water, and preventative healthcare.

This final chapter from the Flint trilogy, we tell the story of a City that has grown up around the water crisis, and remarkably, achieved a shared sense of resilience, ingenuity, and the will to create a sustainable, post-industrial metropolitan ecosystem. This later stage downtown revitalization process focuses on the reengineering of the FirstMerit Bank building and importantly, the Riverfront Residence Hall and Conference Center. Significantly, with the acquisition of the FirstMerit Bank building and the Riverfront Residence Hall and Conference Center, UM-F has created a vibrant Collegetown vibe for the benefit of its students, faculty, and the larger Flint Community that the University serves. By way of illustrative example, UM-F’s Department of Theatre & Dance hosts productions open to the public – alongside exciting venues like the Flint Institute of the Arts and Buckham Gallery that promote local artwalks within the emergent creative economy.

By growing its downtown presence by approximately 25%, the Riverfront Residence Hall and Conference Center stands out as a beacon of intellectual light, cultural enrichment, and civic pride. As a growing Collegetown, Flint is becoming a magnet for millennials and retirees who want to reside near a major metropolitan area. Over time, the new downtown will attract the next wave of young urban professionals who want to work and play at the epicenter of Flint’s Urban Revival.

Paradoxical though it may seem, the water crisis has brought the Flint Community together and sharpened the University’s focus on public health, wellness, community revitalization, and urban renewal. This focus on public health has even led to new international public health collaboration opportunities in Africa, Asia, Central America, and Europe. Building on the University’s early water resource mitigation success, closer to home, UM-F has convened town hall meetings, seminars, courses, and information sessions with other mission complementary schools, colleges, and universities across the nation and overseas.

Already the University is attracting the attention of major innovation players – read as, Google’s recent $150,000 grant to design and build a smartphone app among other technologies to help Flint residents manage water resources in the future. Amazingly, the app will show where lead levels are highest and will allow researchers to find problem spots much quicker. A prototype app has already been created at UM-F to help collect and monitor baseline data.

Central to the Flint Urban Renaissance is a renewed sense of commercial investment and new business start-up activity. The University is keen to leverage its honest broker role by creating new business accelerator capacity to align with UM-F’s recent launch of the new Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management program. These UM-F students will have access to best practice business management tools, marketing strategies, and financial insight on how to create a business and add value to the Flint economy. Beyond UM-F students, the University is looking to promote local small business entrepreneurs and give them a wonderful opportunity to grow, indeed, thrive in the new Flint economy.

—James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of The Provost's Handbook: The Role of the Chief Academic Officer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.

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