BATTLE CREEK — It’s no secret Battle Creek has struggled with perception.
Several city leaders, and others who live in the city, acknowledge there's a stigma against Battle Creek, but many said there is a disconnect between perception and reality.
"Oh, it's like halfway between Chicago and Detroit, so there's this perception that it's like on the drug corridor between those two big cities,” Battle Creek resident Deborah Craig said. “You know, and I hear about how downtown is not like it used to be, and that’s true.”
Battle Creek Police Chief Jim Blocker recalls a question posed to him when he moved to Battle Creek.
"People were like, 'You want to move to Battle Creek?' You know, 'Why do you want to do that?'” he said.
Battle Creek Unlimited President and CEO Joe Sobieralsky said, “I feel like there’s a hyper focus on the negativity that comes about.”
“Maybe the word is challenging people about, OK, so why do you say that? And many times, and you know, I can just speak from a city services perspective, it’s something that’s happened a while ago, and they can’t say that it’s been repeated, or happened again,” City Manager Rebecca Fleury said. “It’s just something that has stuck with them, that has a negative connotation.”
Fleury said projects like Heritage Tower, the New Holland Brewery and conversion of the McCamly Plaza Hotel to Doubletree by Hilton highlight efforts started years ago that will come to a head in 2019. She said the hope is that the projects will grow the city's population and tax base.
The city is also working to improve customer service. Fleury said in 2015 city employees were put through Disney customer-centric training to help manage negative perception. She said employees have embraced it.
Fleury said, “Not always can we say yes, but, as I’ve said, and as they’ve told me, if the answer is no, it matters how and why it’s a no, and what are any alternatives?”
She also acknowledged a $2.4 million budget shortfall the city will have to overcome in 2019, but said it shouldn’t have an affect on many of the city’s economic development projects, which she said don’t rely on the general fund.
“I think absolutely within three years, I think that you’ll hear a lot different talk about Battle Creek, you know. We’re moving from the ‘Believe in Battle Creek,’ to 'We are open for business,' to 'We are a thriving and successful community,’” Fleury said.
“Obviously, you know, 2008 through 2012 or '15 or so was a hard time for the state of Michigan, and a hard time for urban communities like ours, you know, but we’re kind of turning that ship around right now, but it’s a little bit slow,” said Ted Dearing, former mayor, and current assistant city manager. “And I think the people who are frustrated are just frustrated with the pace of change, but not actually with what’s actually happening here. I think people really feel good about what’s happening here.”
One challenge is getting more people who work in Battle Creek to live in the city as well.
Dearing said people want a dense urban environment to live in, which is different from what people wanted 10 to 15 years ago. Dearing said, traditionally, economic development has been about jobs, talent and quality of life, with jobs being at the top of list.
“But we’re learning that it’s talent and quality of life that attracts jobs,” Dearing said.
He said the city can achieve better quality of life through a better variety of housing options, safe neighborhoods, and recreational options like parks, which he said the city has many.
Talent, Dearing said, is best developed by “growing your own,” which he said coincides with an excellent education system.
One way for education to improve, Dearing said, is through efficient spending of a $51 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to Battle Creek Public Schools.
“I think as the change at Battle Creek Public Schools takes hold, and we improve the educational outcomes in our community, I think that'll take hold over 2019 and 2020,” Dearing said. “We'll probably start to see some of the results of some of the fruits of that labor."
“Well you hear, you hear that type of stuff, but do you believe it? And you’re probably preaching to the church choir, because you’re looking at an individual that’s lived here for 60 years, all his life,” said Battle Creek Mayor Mark Behnke. “Do we need improvement? Absolutely.”
Behnke said the three main areas of focus are education, economic development and housing.
“I think housing is going to be where we really got to concentrate to attract people into Battle Creek, because if we don’t have available housing, or sufficient housing, then people aren’t going to come to our town.”
Behnke said the city hasn’t built a new high-rise affordable housing development since 1972. He thinks it’s something the Battle Creek Housing Commission should look into. Behnke said the housing market on the south side of Battle Creek is doing well, but the availability of homes is small.
He also thinks the city can do a better job getting people excited about the attractions available, such as Binder Park Zoo.
As someone who knows transportation, being that his business is Behnke Transportation, the mayor said it’s also an area of needed improvement.
“We have several of the corporations out in the Fort Custer that have open spots in the employment of their organization. They cannot find capable people, because of transportation. We’re working on that,” Behnke said.
The purpose of Battle Creek Unlimited (BCU) is to drive more businesses and development to the city. The organization’s president and CEO said major success is on the horizon.
“Yeah, I definitely think Battle Creek gets a bad rap,” Joe Sobieralsky said. “Businesses come and go. We’re working hard to make more come than go.”
He said BCU has traditionally been known for growing the Fort Custer Industrial park, which he called world-class, with more than 80 companies, and 25 international companies. But he said improving the image of Battle Creek starts with the downtown.
He said one way BCU is working to improve the downtown are through Request For Proposals (RFP), which he said are no-strings-attached incentive dollars aimed at attracting businesses.
“We’re offering $200,000 for you to establish a new restaurant, maybe grow your existing restaurant in Battle Creek, or come up with a new concept, because you’re a professional restaurateur in Battle Creek,” Sobieralsky said.
He said Battle Creek is “not quite there yet,” but envisions a different kind of conversation about the city in the future.
“I see a robust downtown that’s going to have foot traffic, not only during the weekday, but on the week nights and evenings. It’s gonna be a destination where people are going to want to go, ‘Hey, let’s go check out Battle Creek out, again,’” Sobieralsky said.
Some restaurants that are already in Battle Creek need help too.
“I think that it’s small business challenging. I think there is some aspects that are welcoming, but I think there are problems,” JoAnn Knox, the owner of Rafaynee, a southern cuisine restaurant, said. “I would consider our business not very good at this point.”
Knox runs the restaurant with Charles Knox, her husband, and said she struggles to bring people in during the lunch hour. She said she wishes she had more support from the city.
“There’s a tendency to welcome you when you first open and then you’re kind of forgotten about,” Knox said. “There are a number of initiatives going on to help small businesses. I think a better explanation to me on how to access some of those privileges.”
Knox said more foot traffic downtown would make a big difference for her business. She would also like more opportunities to cater for community events.
When asked if she would recommend other small businesses opening in Battle Creek, she gave the advice: “I would just say be very cautionary. Be careful.”
While the city works to bring more people to Battle Creek, and improve the lives of people already there, it also has to protect them. That’s something Police Chief Jim Blocker said his department does well, even if there is room for improvement.
"We don't deny our numbers, but it gets more of the attention that maybe other communities get that same attention and that focus,” Blocker said.
When asked if he thinks the city is a safe place to live, Blocker said, “I do,” adding, “We’re seeing crime actually decrease. Yet the reputation out there is still out there, and so that is something that we always have to work against.”
He said the department is tracking lower crime rates in many of its different metrics:
Blocker said there is a danger in comparing the crime data of different cities and communities, because variables are often very different.
He said the department can improve through being a better service provider and communicator. He also said the community can help the department through better communication as well, letting officers know about any situations where police may be needed.
“This is a really great place, and really, it’s hard sometimes for our local folks to appreciate it. It’s outsiders that come in, like I was, and look around, and go, 'You know, this is kind of a special place,'” Blocker said. “No, it’s not perfect, and yes, we have a lot of work to do, and it’s work that will never stop.”
CORRECTION: The above article has been changed from its original posting to reflect the correct amount donated from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and to indicate that the money was a grant.