Flint is on the comeback trail, thanks to new funding that will upgrade the county park at the old Chevy in the Hole with boat launches, play spaces, and an amphitheater


Need to Know

  • Under a new law championed by Gov. Whitmer, Flint is getting a state park at the site of its old Chevy in the Hole auto plant. 
  • Residents have asked for more green spaces and recreational and job opportunities at home.
  • The state projects the park could bring more than $100 million into the community. 

FLINT—Breanne Morris has lived in the same house for 30 years. The Flint grandmother went to elementary school here, and she remembers when that was a stamp of academic achievement. Now, it seems like everybody in Flint has to look outside the city limits for the best schools, best amenities, and best parks.

But last Wednesday, the region made major strides down the comeback trail, landing a significant state investment that will drive tourism in and improve residents’ quality of life.

Flint is getting Michigan’s newest state park—signed, sealed, and funded worth tens of millions. The impact to the region is even greater, worth more than $100 million, state officials say. Local leaders say the benefits will be felt for decades.

“We need [a park] where families can come together and the kids can come to play,” Morris said after learning about the project. 

It was an imperfect Thursday to formally deliver the merry news. Fiercely strong wind gusts spoiled the plan to make the announcement outside, toppling a tent and displacing the press conference to Kettering University’s mobility center across the river.

But no one in the crowd seemed bothered by the winds. The open room simmered with an undercurrent of excitement that had been stewing for years, during which time nonprofits and start-ups brainstormed a Flint past its manufacturing peak. Transforming the former industrial site had always been part of that Flint-of-the-future vision. 

Image via Governor’s Office

“We were supposed to do this out there, in a tent that almost got blown away,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, dressed in a gray sweatshirt, baby blue blazer, and white Converse tennis shoes. “That’s why I’m dressed so casually. I thought we were going to be out in the field.”

Last week, Whitmer signed into law a supplementary spending plan for water, recreation, and infrastructure investments around the state. Flint is on the receiving end of $30 million for its state park and additional investments for water infrastructure.

The state park is something residents and local leaders had wished for even at the city’s apex, but they were unsure whether or not it would happen.

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“It’s exciting,” Whitmer said. “I’d love to say we can snap our fingers and it’ll all be done in a year, but we want to make sure it’s an inclusive process and community-driven.”

Last year, Whitmer formally introduced plans for the new state park. The event was met with much hullabaloo about what it could mean for Flint—“could” being the operative word. Whitmer proposed using federal funds, but GOP state lawmakers had to sign off on it. They didn’t.

But with Michigan entering 2022 with a record surplus and expiring federal funds ticking away, the time is right. Flint is getting its state park, funded at a higher level than Whitmer first proposed, waving the flag for tourists and travelers that Flint is open for business—and recreation.

“With signing this legislation, we’re ready to start moving dirt,” Whitmer said from the podium, with the site of the state park in the distance beyond open garage doors. “We’re ready to go.”

The Chevy Commons state park, recently a fledgling county park on reclaimed industrial ground, will likely be completed within the next few years, since the federal funds dedicated to the project need to be spent by 2026. The park, home to walking paths and native plant life, will be decked out with a kayak and canoe launch, an amphitheater, and trails that connect the park with major parts of the community.

“Oh, wow,” Morris said upon hearing about the planned features. “I think that would be an asset to the area.”

A Historic, Embattled Past

In 2014, the city decided to finally do something with the overgrown lot standing above the river—a former GM automotive manufacturing facility known as Chevy in the Hole that had remained dormant for 10 years behind a chain link fence. 

With a small grant from the US Environmental Protection Agency, the city held a meeting with residents to reveal its plan: walking trails, low-maintenance plant life, and a small parking area. Residents, many of whom had worked at the plant, cheered on the idea, according to MLive.

Days later, the city switched its water supply over to the Flint River, and the lead crisis began. 

The park’s story is as fraught with twists and turns as the nearby river. 

Since the 1800s, the ground had been a space for heavy industry, the kind that’s profitable but environmentally devastating. It first hosted a saw mill before accompanying a carriage and wagon building facility in the 1880s.

Then, Chevrolet purchased the plot in 1912, even before it had merged with General Motors, and soon cranked out its first engine on site. At its peak, the plant employed 14,000 people. When the historically significant Flint sit-down strikes came to town, Chevy in the Hole served as a turning point in the 1930s battle between workers and owners. A protracted and at times violent standoff that briefly switched off production, the Flint sit-down strikes eventually led to the formal recognition of the United Auto Workers.

In the decades that followed, Flint grew and thrived. It became the first major city in America with a Black mayor. In 1980, Flint was the No. 1 city in America for the average, or median, wage of young people. 

But disinvestment and a quilt of anti-city laws over decades left Flint with runaway suburbanization and a declining tax base.

By the 1990s, production at Chevy in the Hole had halted. By 2004, the last building was demolished. Prime real estate on the Flint River a few blocks from downtown, the space was abandoned. 

Flint similarly had lost more than half of its residents since the 1960s, and blocks of once-thriving neighborhoods became patchy grass fields. In 2002, the city fell under state-appointed emergency management, which sliced amenities and services in attempts to dig the city out of debt.

Now, Flint has a dropout rate more than three times compared to the whole state’s. It isn’t what you’d expect from any other medium-sized city with two universities, plus one community college.

Building a Flint of the Future

Three years ago, an independent test returned the lowest levels of lead in the water since the crisis began. From 2016 on, lead levels have consistently come back below the federal action level, and as of late 2021, the city had replaced more than 90% of lead pipes that run to people’s homes. 

Chevy Commons has been transformed as well, with walking trails, outdoor seating, and native plant life. Becoming a state-funded park will add on trail connections to neighborhoods, playscapes, and fishing platforms.

“It’s going to have a reverberating effect moving forward for decades,” Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley said in an interview with The ‘Gander. 

State officials envision the new park as a gathering place for community members and a draw for tourists and residents of nearby areas, similar to the revitalization that has happened at Detroit’s once-privatized and blighted waterfront. 

Local leaders hope the investment will spark a groundswell of business as well, both for existing shops and restaurants in nearby Carriage Town and for new ones that can cater to the outdoor recreation scene.

Image courtesy Michigan DNR

“All of those things play hand in hand, and so putting the structural pieces together is very important,” Neeley said. “We’ve done the planning. We’ve done the work. We’re putting resources to bear, and we’re going to be fully supportive of all opportunities in recreational spaces.”

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Rejuvenation in Reach

A Kettering University senior majoring in mechanical engineering, Candance Uletc thinks the area is ripe for growth. In her time here, she’s seen agile start-ups fill the void left by large corporations.

“More areas that people can integrate and talk and have fun—that would be really good for the community,” said Uletc, who moved to Flint from Jamaica to attend Kettering, located right across the river from the Chevy Commons. 

When she told her family she was moving to Flint, they looked at her like she was crazy, Uletc said. “They were like, what, no,” she recalled. Even she was apprehensive.

But you can’t believe everything you hear, Uletc continued. Flint has its share of blighted blocks, true. But look beyond that, she said, and people will discover a “peaceful” city and a community that cares about one another.

During the summer, residents often congregate at the lake—yes, Flint has a lake—near the tree-covered Max Brandon park, with blankets and lawn chairs and good food. They relax and listen to music. People love being outside. 

In the four years she’s lived in Flint, Uletc said she’s fallen in love with the city. In her free time, she works with a volunteer organization to teach kids science, technology, engineering, and math through sports. 

“It’s not all dirty water and what people think. It’s actually very beautiful,” Uletc said. “It went through some troubling times with the water and all that, but I think if more people come to these parks that are opening up, they can see Flint for themselves.”

Uletc isn’t the only one who feels that way.

Morris, the Flint grandmother, said she’s picked up on a trend of positive news: The city is building back.

“We need [a park] where families can come together and the kids can come to play.”

Breanne Morris, Flint Resident

She hopes that the state park will provide careers for locals and bring local kids in for volunteering, field trips, and teenager-appropriate jobs. It’s something that everyone seems to agree with—a project for Flint and Genesee County, by Flint and Genesee County. 

The state has said it’s hoping to find a local contractor too.

“We want to make sure that whatever we put here is relevant, not only to the local people but people that would come here to seek tourism and see the community,” said Ron Olson, chief of the Department of Natural Resources Parks and Recreation Division. “It will truly be an attraction.”

Kimberly Leverette, executive director of training and education at the Flint & Genesee Group, said her program for years has partnered with the DNR to get summer jobs at state parks. As part of the program, kids go to two state parks a summer, where they learn to appreciate the outdoors and make some money.

Now, they can do that at home, Leverette said, adding that she can’t wait to go jogging with her daughter down the trails.

“Things are starting to change,” Morris said. “The more they recognize the need to provide some local recreations for kids … the better the situation will be.”

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Editor’s note: We previously reported that Genesee County was the last county in Michigan without a state park based on information sent in press releases. It is not, and we have reflected the story to show that.