Here's How the Mott Foundation is Revitalizing Downtown Flint, Michigan

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation awarded a $120,000 grant to the Greater Flint Arts Council to fund the city's five-month Parade of Festivals arts program this summer.

We'd venture to argue that the Mott Foundation's work in Flint provides a useful road map for private/public partnerships in small American cities transitioning into post-industrial economies. After all, Flint's history is well documented. Once a hotbed of auto manufacturing, the city deteriorated with the closure of plants in the '80s, a depressing development famously captured by Michael Moore's film Roger and Me.

Yet Flint's experience isn't a solitary one. All across the Midwest and the Rust Belt, towns are struggling to adapt to the realization that many of these jobs aren't coming back. As a result, these towns are left with two choices: hold on for some kind of manufacturing renaissance similar to the 1960s-era glory days, or adapt by diversifying their local economy and transforming the city into an incubator of arts and culture.

The Mott Foundation has been instrumental in guiding this transformation in Flint. For example, it recently gave a $9 million grant to Michigan State University's School of Public Health to double its medical students working in local hospitals, recruit top health researchers to the area, and roll out a master degree program in public health.

That grant suggests that the foundation realizes that a great way to attract people to a city is to invest in rapidly growing sectors like public health and information technology. But these new transplants also need to be entertained, which bring us to the foundation's recent grant to fund the 2014 Parade of Festivals. The event, which was launched in 1999, runs every weekend from June through October and includes a lineup of 18-20 smaller festivals, one per weekend, including nine produced by smaller arts and cultural organizations. 

Mott has supported the Parade of Festivals since its start, and more broadly has a long history of supporting arts and culture – including both “anchor events” and “anchor institutions” – which it's seen as drivers of economic revitalization and quality of life in Flint. 

The Parade of Festivals stated goal is to "enhance Flint's image within the region and enliven the downtown area," has been central to the city's revitalization efforts. According to Greater Flint Arts Council CEO Greg Fielder, whose organization runs the program, "Festivals are a great economic driver for the community, because they attract a lot of people downtown who spend a lot of money. With all the bricks-and-mortar projects going on, we knew we would have to draw people to make it successful."

In fact, according to Fiedler, last year's festivals brought about $20 million into downtown Flint, an increase from the $12 million organizers calculated a decade ago. And the Council's role is less of a hands-on organizer and more of an enlightened outsourcer. They disperse the foundation's funds to the 18-20 "sub-festivals," which in turn roll out their events on scheduled weekends.

So if a $120,000 grant from the foundation yields $20 million in revenues for downtown Flint across a five-month period, that's an impressive return on investment that helps to revitalize and transform the city. Here's hoping other cities are paying attention.