As part of my work on midsize Midwest cities (or as I think I’ll start collectively calling them, Mid-middies), I’m going to profile various Mid-middies on occasion. I did this already for Muncie, Indiana. Today I’ll go with Saginaw, Michigan – for no real reason other than my parents live there and I’m going there for Mother’s Day this weekend.
In many ways, Saginaw is a classic mini-version of Detroit, in the way that a few other Michigan cities are (Flint and Pontiac come to mind, and Lansing, the state capital, shares some characteristics). Saginaw was a lumbering center that was a gateway to Michigan’s North Woods that transitioned into becoming an automotive center at the early part of the 20th Century. Saginaw was a major auto parts producer that shipped parts to Detroit for assembly, but a fair amount of auto assembly took place there as well.
Alas, Saginaw’s more recent history mirrors Detroit as well. Saginaw’s population peaked at just under 100,000 in 1960, and today sits at 51,500. In fact, Saginaw barely made my Mid-middies cutoff of 50,000 in population – it is the second-smallest of the 71 cities on my Mid-middies list. The population loss was sparked by the same auto industry decline that’s hit so many other cities.
Today Saginaw is a shadow of its former self. The withdrawal of high-paying but low-skilled auto manufacturing jobs has left a city that has become increasingly poorer and less educated. Those who could have moved to outlying suburban areas or left the region altogether.
The city does have a plan, the Saginaw Master Plan. Released in late 2011, the plan does a good job of analyzing existing land use patterns in the city, and making land use recommendations that can make Saginaw a more pleasant place to live.
But on what, exactly, do these land use recommendations stand?
Short of saying Saginaw needs to create a new economy (ya think?) the plan is completely silent on the matter of economic development, despite it being the highest priority activity identified by residents and stakeholders who participated in community meetings. The land use recommendations proposed are generally sound, but without any factual underpinnings of what Saginaw’s economic future will be, it’s simply pixie dust.
Equally troubling is the implementation action section of the plan. Task after task in the section identifies the City’s City Council or Plan Commission as the key actors in realizing the future land use vision. Yes, the City needs to take a leadership role in creating its future. But Saginaw can’t do it alone. It needs partners – at the state level, the county level; better networks between local government and the business community; a stronger relationship with institutions like Saginaw Valley State University, and even the surrounding towns who feel Saginaw’s problems are theirs and theirs alone.
This is an existential moment for towns like Saginaw. They will need to find a way to make its future achievable and sustainable, not just prettier.