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Urban Renewal — part 1 of 3 How Fenton’s downtown and history were lost by 211 votes

Still controversial nearly 50 years later

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Posted: Friday, August 29, 2014 10:21 am

This is part one of a three-part series on Fenton’s urban renewal. Part 1: Still controversial nearly 50 years later. Part 2: The walls came tumbling down. Part 3: Never the same again. This series was originally published in 2013.

 Many area citizens mourned the fact that the building that once housed the Fenton Cinema was slated to be torn down. Most are not aware that this is not the first time in Fenton’s history that it has lost such a building.

 A mere 40 years ago, Fenton’s thriving downtown housed its own movie theatre, the Rowena, owned and operated by J.C. Peck. Like the majority of buildings that were downtown, the theatre was lost in the mid 1970s to a controversial — many would say disastrous — urban renewal project.

 “They tore the history of the town down,” said Ken Seger, curator of the A.J. Phillips Fenton Museum, and a Fenton resident during the time of urban

renewal. “How many towns have a little home theater?” 

 The urban renewal process began in the mid 1960s, with the admirable goal of revitalizing urban areas whose downtowns were old and crumbling. The long and complex process involved relocation of existing businesses, demolition of many of the original buildings, and the rebuilding of the downtown infrastructures.

 Then, as now, urban renewal projects across the country had experienced rousing successes — and dismal failures. At the time, the issue fiercely divided the residents of Fenton, with almost exactly half of the residents supporting the project and the other half opposing it. As the old saying goes, hindsight is 20/20, and unfortunately, for Fenton, most would agree that it is difficult today to view Fenton’s urban renewal project as anything but a complete and total failure.

 The process began in 1964, with the Fenton Planning Commission’s desire to modernize the city’s downtown district.

 In May of 1964, the Fenton City Council approved a study to be conducted to assess the cost of an urban renewal project to rejuvenate the downtown. The city council at that time consisted of Mayor Harry Lemen, and councilmen Paul Bottecelli, Ray Hunt, Harold Skinner, Tom Sullivan, Dan Cotcher, and Dr. R. Noble Peckham.

 At the time, investigating the plan and drawing up maps for the renewal project would cost a mere $500, plus an additional $250 for preparation of the federal application process. For various reasons the project stalled and would not be picked up again for another year — possibly foreshadowing the many issues, problems and delays the project would face over the next 10 years.

 The project stopped and started multiple times as studies and surveys were conducted. Finally, in the late ‘60s, Fenton was finally granted an advance of $103,148 by the federal government through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for the surveying and planning of the long-awaited urban renewal project.

 Land utilization studies, market usability studies, title inspections, structural inspections, building appraisal studies — these were just a few of the many steps undertaken in the process. The city continued to receive more money from HUD to help defray these costs, which began to pile up at an alarming rate.

 The Urban Renewal Study Committee was formed and retired assistant postmaster George Pain was appointed as the full-time urban renewal director. A plan finally began to take form.

 The boundaries of Fenton’s ambitious urban renewal project contained

69 structures. Of those structures, 61 of them were deemed “deficient” and were slated to be torn down.

 In 1971, after more than six years of planning and a plethora of road bumps, the urban renewal project was finally ready to move forward. The plan was in order, studies and surveys had been conducted, and all of the preliminary work was completed — the only remaining hurdle to implementation was a public vote.

 However, before the vote could be conducted, Pain unexpectedly passed away, causing yet another delay. The city council had a decision to make — should the city continue with the project or shelf it again? The Fenton Chamber of Commerce was tasked with measuring the level of interest held by downtown merchants to help decide how the city should proceed.

 Because the downtown was still intact, the concept of urban renewal once again polarized the residents, resulting in many heated public debates. A group of downtown merchants began voicing their opposition in 1970, arguing that there were less extreme measures that could be taken to improve the quality of the downtown buildings, and that tearing them down was too extreme of a measure.

 A formal group opposing the urban renewal project, The Citizens for Community Improvement and Preservation, was formed.

 “It’s amazing that you would destroy that much stuff. But they did,” Seger said. “Some of the buildings the landlords had really let decay, right down to nothing. A lot of them though, like the hardware and the theater and the drug store, before they tore them down, those buildings were in good shape.”

 Again, the city of Fenton found itself a house divided. “It was said the end of the arguments about the rebuilding of downtown Fenton would be when the last person dies who remembers it,” said Don Winglemire of Winglemire Furniture in Holly. Though he relocated his business just prior to the beginning of urban renewal, Winglemire had owned and operated a furniture store in downtown Fenton for years. The building that housed his business, like all the others in the area, fell to the wrecking ball and is no longer standing today.

 “It was a hell of a mess,” he said. “Fenton lost their downtown.”

 With battle lines drawn, the fate of urban renewal in Fenton was ultimately decided by a back-and-forth political battle, with the arena being the voting booths. Fenton residents voted in no less than three separate urban renewal elections over the next two years.

 The first election took place on Dec. 12, 1972, when opponents of urban renewal attempted to recall the entire city council. Despite various council members coming and going since the beginning of the project, the council still stood in favor of urban renewal. The controversial recall attempt was overwhelmingly defeated.

 Less than one year later, a scheduled general election took place. This time, those opposing urban renewal were successful and many antiurban renewal candidates were elected to the city council. Dr. Arthur Brandt was elected as Fenton’s mayor, with Louis Moultane, Robert Weishaupt, Dr. C. H. White, and Nelson Curtis also winning council seats.

 “The first thing the new city council did was eliminate all of the things the old city council had done,” Seger said.

 This victory was short-lived however. The newly elected representatives scheduled an election to let the people’s voice once again decide the future of urban renewal.

 Those in support of urban renewal launched their own political campaign. One key issue that many believe helped persuade voters included the strong possibility that the City of Fenton would be required to repay almost $1 million to HUD for money already spent on the program, if the city did not go through with urban renewal.

 In February 1972, people flocked to the ballot boxes in droves to cast their votes for or against urban renewal. By a margin of a mere 211 votes, the urban renewal project was again endorsed by the citizenry.

 Following the successful vote, the process of urban renewal was set in motion almost immediately.

 Downtown Fenton was destined to lose the majority of its downtown buildings. It would never look the same again.

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