A downtown development project in Sault Ste. Marie is bringing back a historic building. That’s a trend throughout the state.

SAULT STE MARIE, Mich.—Breathtaking, turn-of-the-20th-century buildings vacantly sit downtown; in every decent-sized Michigan city, you know them. 

Across the country, once-beautiful, now-blighted storefronts exist—but in the industrial Midwest, the demise of downtown fixtures is a prominent feature.

For instance, positioned on the main waterfront drive in Sault Ste. Marie, a capacious, faded-brick two-story structure sat for years, jutting far back in the city block and decaying year over year. 

Neighbors know it well. The building sits in what some consider the tourist district, said Allison Youngs, a resident who’s lived downtown in Sault Ste. Marie for 20 years. More than that, it’s taking up valuable land—directly adjacent from the Soo Locks.

She’s long wondered what would happen to it.

“We have a lot of great stores and gorgeous old buildings. And some have been rehabbed and are wonderful, and others, like this, need some work,” said Youngs, who’s a member of the downtown .

Many neighbors don’t yet know the newest news, though: The building is being redeveloped, as made by possible by a grant from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).

Just a while ago, neighbors became hopeful when they saw work being done on the building’s storefront. But then, construction stopped and no one moved in. Cleanup still had to be done before anyone could move in. The property owner, McClellan Realty LLC, hit a roadblock in environmental contamination.

Now, there’s big news coming—funding for the cleanup has been secured, and redevelopment will roll ahead. The dilapidated property, in what should be one of Sault Ste. Marie’s most desirable blocks, is going to become home to shops and residents. The $3.5 million project will yield four commercial spaces on the ground floor and 10 upstairs residential units.

“I’m looking forward to more apartments downtown,” Youngs said, noting that there’s a housing shortage in the area.

OTHER: Electric Vehicles Are Being Built in Michigan—Here’s How the Workforce Is Preparing

A Proud History in Sault Ste. Marie

Between the waters of Lake Superior, north of the Upper Peninsula, and the eastern seaboard, a hitch blocks the route. That 21-foot vertical hitch, to be exact, is what made Sault Ste. Marie famous.

In Sault Ste. Marie, at the point where lakes Superior and Huron kiss, a drop in the water level from lake to lake makes the connecting channels naturally unpassable. That is, unless there were some sort of elevator that could move thousands of tons of water and cargo.

Thankfully, there is.

The Soo Locks, developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, equalize the water levels in precisely engineered stables that fit huge barges and freighters. These ships then have safe passage between the lakes and can access all of the eastern part of the country (and back).

For good reason, the Soo Locks are affectionately known as “the linchpin of the Great Lakes,” and hundreds of thousands of tourists come yearly to marvel at the engineering wonder. Every year, the locks lift and lower 7,000 vessels and 86 million tons. 

In the early 1900s, business was booming and ships were constantly gliding through Michigan waters—hub of American manufacturing. The Army Corps of Engineers built the MacArthur Lock in 1943, and traffic ran often through Sault Ste. Marie.

In the 1920s, a prominent laundromat and dry cleaner opened on 411 W. Portage Ave., serving the many maritime professionals who stopped in at the city. Located at the old MAC building, it became a favorite for many, and lasted 50 years at the same location.

An old photo even shows an “international trade center” hosted at the site of the cleaners.

But in 1970, it closed and never reopened. And until now, no one has been able to rebuild on the property. Why?

When laundromats and dry cleaners move out, they leave a mess. With numerous chemicals left below the property, saturated by water and runoff underground, the property becomes unsafe to redevelop. 

“There was an old dry cleaners there. I think they had to do all sorts of things to make the building rentable again,” Youngs said.

Even if the building itself were to be torn down, the environmental cleanup necessary for opening a business safely on premises can be prohibitively expensive.

For many blighted buildings that seem to linger purposeless, cleanup costs are the reason why.

“We’re looking to make this site safe for reuse,” said Abigail Hanson, EGLE’s brownfield redevelopment coordinator for the Upper Peninsula.

RELATED: The Preservation of 5 Historical Sites in Michigan Just Got An Assist with Grant Funding

How This Redevelopment Is Happening

These properties are known as brownfields, meaning they’re contaminated sites of former business, and governments are trying to turn them back into public amenities.

When these former industrial sites can be rehabbed, it’s a big boon to local residents and economies. First, cities recapture tax revenue, letting them reinvest in public programs. Second, planners and developers have more space to work with, since there aren’t large wasted spaces. Lastly, communities preserve neighborhood fabric and history.

The state is incentivizing these redevelopments through several programs. One, administered through EGLE has invested in 21 projects this summer, with many focused in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.

“When we receive applications for funding, we evaluate those proposals based on a number of different categories,” Hanson said. “We look at the economic benefit, the social benefit, and the environmental benefit that the project would bring to the community.”

The Sault Ste. Marie project scored high on all counts, awarding it the grant. 

In addition to the project in Sault Ste. Marie, these same grants have been given out in Manistee, Otsego County, and Ludington. Because of the grant, Manistee could soon be home to a new hotel and conference center downtown.

Hanson began her job working with these types of projects in February, and said she’s been making inroads in the Upper Peninsula alerting property owners and developers to these opportunities. Typically, EGLE receives fewer requests from the UP than other large areas, Hanson said.

One factor EGLE considers in proposals is geographic distribution—making sure that grants are equitably awarded and no area has a bias.

This newest round of awards makes sure northern Michigan gets its fair slice.

“We’re always trying to reach out to help these smaller communities and make them aware that there are these resources available,” Hanson said.

Q&A: 10 Questions Michiganders Are Asking About Fixing the Damn Roads