The City of Kalamazoo, Michigan
Excellence through diversity
Business View Magazine interviews Antonio Mitchell, Community Investment Manager, Kalamazoo Michigan, for our focus on Economic Development in U.S. Cities
“From Timbuktu to Kalamazoo” – yes, there really is a Kalamazoo, and it’s kind of a magical place. A very unique city in western Michigan that puts a huge emphasis on all kinds of education; from science, technology, engineering, and mechanics to liberal, visual, and culinary arts.
The city and community’s focus on education and workforce planning is so exceptional that every child who attends the Kalamazoo Public School System can attend university at no cost to them or their family. Thanks to wealthy community members who have agreed to foot the bill for every child – to maximize the potential of those attending university, but also to ensure they give back to the community as well, in the form of their contribution to the workforce. Those community-minded efforts are being done through the “Kalamazoo Promise”.
But that’s not the only reason Kalamazoo stands apart from other regions of the U.S. and the world. The city heralds physical, sexual, ability, and racial diversity among its greatest strengths. They strive to give a warm welcome to students, residents, and visitors of all backgrounds, orientations, and abilities to enjoy all that Kalamazoo has to offer. City staff work tirelessly to ensure every citizen has the same advantages through education, economic development, infrastructure, and affordable housing projects throughout the community.
Antonio Mitchell, Community Investment Manager for the Community Planning and Economic Development Department boasts, “We have lots of opportunities with music and entertainment venues here. We have an auditorium at Western University, we have a lot of theatre… Cats and Wicked and Lion King, they’ve all been here in our community auditorium. It shows the diversity of the arts that people will be able to access here. I think our gift is our strong focus on education and diversity as a foundation for our community.”
Home to about 75,000 permanent residents, the City of Kalamazoo is the seat of Kalamazoo County and sits right between Detroit, Michigan to the east and Chicago, Illinois to the west, both around 150 miles away and easily accessible by train or automobile. The I-94 runs through the city making travel and shipping for businesses a breeze. Kalamazoo County is also blessed with 83 small public lakes and several rivers making it a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. There are three ski resorts within a 10 minute drive from downtown Kalamazoo and 22 public golf courses in the area. The Kalamazoo Valley Bike Trail runs from downtown all the way to Lake Michigan. The trail, which goes through Battle Creek, could take about two hours each way for a recreational rider. The city also stakes a claim to one of the largest farmers’ markets in the surrounding area. That building and site is slated for expansion in 2022.
Mitchell notes that while the recreational amenities are abundant, other amenities are largely unknown. He states, “People would never guess that we have over 450 restaurants in Kalamazoo county. That’s probably changed because of COVID, but before the pandemic it is one of the things that was not even talked about. Our county is not that big, yet we have all these amazing things that make us unique. More recently, Pfizer has put us on the map because we’re producing the COVID-19 vaccine right here in our regional area.”
Pfizer is just one of the many large businesses that are headquartered in or near Kalamazoo. Those companies include Stryker, which is one of the world’s leading medical technology companies, and Whirlpool Headquarters is in the southwest Michigan region near Kalamazoo, along with many engineering and manufacturing companies that help support workforce development with the regional economic development partner, Southwest Michigan First. They work together to recruit, train, and ultimately employ graduating students and residents in many different industries.
The city takes on more than 30,000 students every fall who attend one of the many different post-secondary educational institutions based in Kalamazoo. Outstanding schools such as Western Michigan University, that incorporates Western Michigan University Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine; the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences; Thomas M. Cooley Law School; Haworth College of Business, and much more. The town also hosts Kalamazoo College and Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and Kalamazoo Valley Culinary College that has a Food Innovation Centre.
“The students bring a welcome infusion of life to the city every fall,” says Mitchell. “That brings a different change of atmosphere. So we’re tied into education, science, and arts and we’re trying to grow in that sense of creating an atmosphere of acceptable involvement of all individuals of race, LGBTQ2, community, religion. We’re trying to be as diverse and accepting as possible.”
When it comes to connectivity, the city is trying to ensure fiber internet cables are laid throughout the city and not just downtown, so everyone can access high speed internet. That’s an important factor, especially with the growing population. Many people who visit or complete their education in Kalamazoo want to stay, but there is currently a shortage of available housing stock. According to Mitchell, anything that does come up for sale is snatched up within one or two weeks of hitting the market. That being said, the city and developers are working to fill the gap by creating affordable housing solutions downtown and throughout the main thoroughfares. One such development took place at the Exchange Building on East Michigan Avenue. It’s a 340,000 sq. ft project that includes 15 stories with 130 apartments and opened to rave reviews in 2020.
Another development on Rose Street is a 158,000 sq. ft, four-story building with 135 apartments. Mitchell explains, “That was just phase one of the project, they are working on phase two now. Hopefully, that will be done next year to match that development with another large 150,000 sq. ft apartment complex. They moved up phase two because they were literally sold out for apartment leases before the project was done, then they had a large waiting list.”
Another development, that is in the final stages on 180 East Water Street, will become a 275,000 sq. ft mixed-use residential and retail location. It will be seven stories with 40 apartments and will include workforce affordable housing. That development is projected to be competed this year. The Creamery Project is about 1.5 miles away from downtown, but it’s on a main corridor. Mitchell describes it as “a connection point between our downtown and our Kalamazoo Battle Creek International Airport.” The project contains 48 affordable units, with workforce affordable housing and a 24-hour daycare run by the YWCA.
They aren’t stopping there though. The city has also seen development of the Health and Service Campus on a 10-acre brownfield site, which includes a Family Health Care Center, Department of Mental Health, and across the street there is a variety of housing available. They are also looking to add more than 100 affordable housing units nearby. From a hospitality perspective, an eight-story Hilton Garden Inn Hotel and Home2 Suites was built in the downtown recently bringing 107 suites and 118 boutique suites to the core area.
As for infrastructure, Mitchell says, “More community members with deep pockets have stepped up over the years through the Foundations of Excellence program to provide the city with updated infrastructure and to assist with equity development in the City of Kalamazoo – working with the city to provide dollars to assist with growth and development. Part of those dollars are going toward infrastructure development; including streets water, sewer, and lead replacement piping throughout the city.”
In the next three to five years, Mitchell hopes to see the downtown core grow through adding even more educational institutions and beefing up their medical system. He shares, “I want to see a vibrant and active downtown, with a lot of people wearing medical badges, walking around, talking and going to our restaurants and our entertainment venues as a daily and weekly part of their life.”
AT A GLANCE
City of Kalamazoo, Michigan
What: A forward-thinking, inclusive community; population 75,000
Where: Kalamazoo County, southwest Michigan