INTRO: The state of Michigan has a modest economic development program called Main Street Calumet. Around the country, programs like this have pulled in 40 dollars of private investment for every dollar they put in. The upper peninsula town of Calumet has been in the program since 2003. And as Chris McCarus reports, it’s working.
Tom Tikkanen sells real estate in downtown Calumet. His roots are here on the Keweenaw Peninsula and in Finland.
“My dad was the first born generation in this country and we’re all raised on a farm just outside of Calumet. We still have it. Dad’s 88 and living and sleeping in the same bed he was born in.”
An elderly lady stops Tikkanen on the sidewalk.. He doesn’t remember her name. But he knows she’s a joker.
“You want me to tell him a joke. Yeah Yeah keep it clean this time. You hear about the guy streakin in church? They got him by the organ. See she’s always got jokes for me. And half of em you can’t broadcast.”
The lady’s joke sounds like turn of the century Calumet. 30,000 residents, 80 bars, 50 churches and uncounted brothels filled the town. Copper mining made it so important that the state capital almost moved here in 1890.
“Back 100 years ago Copper was king and it was a necessary element for industrial revolution. And it came from here so that’s why we have the community, the remnants of a community that you wouldn’t expect to find a 100 miles past anywhere. It was referred to as the pearl of the north. That’s Calumet. We had electric lights before anywhere else in the state. We had and still have a school system that MEAP scores and things like that are among the highest in the state. It was just a fabulous community that was left to us even though the mines have gone.”
Now Tikkanen and other residents are trying to dust off their assets with help from The Michigan Economic Development Corporation. The MEDC’s Main Street project gives grants to fix up the facades of buildings. It teaches locals how to get historic tax credits and market their towns to investors.
Most of the buildings here are red sandstone. The high tin ceiling inside Rick Oikarinen’s bike and ski shop is still in good shape. But the ornate victorian wood trim outside needs scraping. Here Oikarinen explains the psychology of the Main Street program.
“Well one guy fixes it up and then the next guy says that looks kind a nice and geez mine looks kind of crappy or whatever so they fix theirs up too and it slowly goes around town and you know we’ve had many buildings that have been touched up just because of this program existing. It works out pretty well.”
One of the guys scraping is Mark Cohen, who said he fled the crime of Los Angeles 6 years ago. Both he and Okarinen want businesses to stay downtown rather than move out along the hiway. They know what other people in thriving cities across America know. Every time you start a new business you don’t need a new building on a new piece of land. Change the business. They say. Fine. But reuse the building.
“You know if you just keep the old and just redo it a little bit. It’ll still keep business and it still has its name that’s been here for how many years and you know you don’t have to establish anything with a new business. You know it’s already here, just reface it and go from there.”
Calumet seems to have a church on every block. Some still used, some boarded up, others used as museums. The amount of ornamentation found within such a small area would be any big city’s envy. This cathedral, St. Paul the Apostle was built in 1906.
And this bar called the UP Pub has been around almost as long. So whether it’s through prayer or partying, it’s easy to socialize here. But that won’t keep 19 year old Donald Slayton around to build the community. On this day, he left his bike on the side of a county road where it got a flat tire, then hitchhiked with this driver into town.
“There’s a lot of problems with truency. There’s nothing for kids to do. Like you have to do what I do and venture off miles away on a bike just to find something to do.”
Even if he’s bored in this small town, he’s proud of the Calumet Theatre, perfectly restored with perfect acoustics.
A pianist and singer from Finland perform on stage. They were brought here by Finlandia University in nearby Hancock.
And So for 107 years townsfolk have been able to choose between the bar room and the opera. It’s part of their history that keeps them together. And with a push from the MEDC, it’s helping revive the economy too.