The City of Albion hasn’t had it easy these past few decades. It was once a busy manufacturing town. By the turn of the century, though, all of its big employers disappeared, and the city has struggled to recover. But now, with the help of a surgeon from Saginaw, Albion may finally be on its way back.
“This was, used to be a thriving business area for the African American community,” Carolyn Gilg says as she drives along Austin Avenue, a few blocks away from Albion’s small downtown. As we head east, it feels like we’re going back in time.
Gilg points to fenced-in lots with weeds snaking around the perimeter. Only a few decades ago, Gilg says, these were huge manufacturing plants inside a bustling city.
"A lot of the people stayed here. A lot of this, right here, is where Hayes-Albion was. It's all torn down now, it's all empty," she says.
Gilg remembers exactly what it was like here when she was a child.
"Stinky!" she laughs. "That's the biggest thing I can tell you. I guess they had a lot of sulfur here, and that was the first thing you noticed when you came out in this neighborhood."
The big manufacturers, plus nearby Albion College, made the city rich with history, business, and culture. It’s part of what surgeon and developer Samuel Shaheen loved about the city when he first arrived in the 1980s, to go to college.
"The community as a whole has a sense of pride still, a sense of heritage of industrialization and manufacturing, and a rich tradition of liberal arts education, which is a real attribute that not every city in the Midwest would have," Shaheen says.
But by 2002, that manufacturing closed. In a span of two years, more than a fifth of the city’s jobs disappeared.
"You know, there are seven stages of grieving," says Amy Robertson, the president of the Greater Albion Chamber of Commerce. "And I think that when you're in deep grief, you don’t know what to do."
Robertson says Albion has started to recover, although more slowly than nearby cities, like Kalamazoo. She points to small businesses. Festivals. Even the world’s 17th-ranked disc golf course. For older Albionites, though, it’s been tough to adjust.
"I really think that Albion has suffered from the Eeyore syndrome, from Winnie the Pooh," Robertson says. "And so when you have someone from outside the community and go, 'What do you have to do here?' Then you have Eeyore, who's who you're meeting. All of the sudden you're like 'Eh, I'm not sure I really like that community.'"
"But you have to reach the point where you say, I have hope. I see a vision. I see some sunny skies," Robertson says. "And I think we've reached that point now, because we are showing successes."
Those successes are slowly trickling into the city. In 2002, a new children’ museum opened downtown. Then last July, Brembo Auto Parts invested more than $100 million in a new plant outside the city. Just a few months later, Albion’s historic Bohm Theatre re-opened to the public.
But if you drive along Albion’s brick-lined downtown streets, you still see dusty buildings and vacant storefronts. For a city that’s been fighting just to survive for much of the past half-century, that’s a problem.
"If you have a downtown, and not every community does, it's sort of the face of the community for itself and to the outside," says Peggy Sindt, the president of the Albion Economic Development Corporation. "And the more vital and vibrant it is, the better everybody feels. The more likely they are to be positive about life in general and their community."
Sindt says creating that feeling has become one of the city’s biggest goals. The theatre and museum were a start, but Albion knew it needed something more. Something to re-introduce the city as a place people want to visit. Something to pull in students and parents from Albion College.
In came an unlikely developer: Dr. Samuel Shaheen.
"My education and my day job as a physician has always been about making sure that people are well taken care of," Shaheen says. "And what a better way to do that then helping a community find its way after a tumultuous time?"
Shaheen isn’t a developer by trade. He’s a surgeon from Saginaw, two hours away. But as a hobby, Shaheen’s been redeveloping buildings for years on the east side of the state. So, when he heard about an open property here, he brought forward a proposal: a $9.2 million, 72-room hotel and restaurant right along Main Street.
Now, you’re probably thinking, a hotel? That’s it? That’s the big plan to get Albion back?
But Shaheen and the city envision more.
"I think the most tangible outcome or result is an increase in commerce in the community, especially with more visitors," Shaheen says. "That’s the most tangible and more direct. But I think within the first 12 to 36 months, post-open, you’ll see additional businesses and storefronts that’ll be revitalized that are now vacant."
Shaheen expects the project to break ground in spring of 2016, with an opening in the summer of 2017.
"It's kind of a relief, taking a sigh of relief that enough people are finally stepping up to the plate," says Elizabeth Schultheiss, the executive director of the Albion Community Foundation. She says after so many starts and stops, the new projects, from the theatre restoration to the hotel, are exciting. She sees them as a sign Albion may have finally reached its tipping point.
“So it's kind of a domino effect," Schultheiss says. "The dominos might be, you know, six months between each thing, but all the sudden that feels like a lot is happening.”
For the city, it’ll still be an uphill climb for some years to come. And older Albion residents still mourn the factories and the lack of a bakery or a real clothing store.
But for Carolyn Gilg, who’ve seen all the closings and opening and closings again, her mantra is: “Be patient. All this work has to pay off.” For the first time in a long time, she’s hopeful.
"You know, to me, as a native Albionite," she says. "And to my fellow Albion residents, for those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to stay behind, it's nice to see that our faith has not been misplaced."