Public Art Project Inspires, Energizes St. Joseph

Enjoy this slide show illustrating the St. Joseph Public Art project through the years.

Susan Solon beams with pride as she thumbs through a family photo album on her desk at St. Joseph City Hall. And it’s not even her family.

It’s a photo album that the Belz family of Kalamazoo gave Solon, St. Joseph’s director of communications and marketing, illustrating their repeated visits to St. Joseph to see relatives and the city’s Annual Public Art. It’s really a 52-page visual thank you note to Solon and the city for contributing to their many summer memories.

“Isn’t that great,” Solon says of the album. “It shows how much people and families enjoy the public art year after year.”

The St. Joseph Public Art project began in 2004 as a way to bring visitors to the Lake Michigan shore community, but as the photo album shows the project has really done much more than that. The public art program is one of many “How-To” studies done by the Michigan Municipal League. The how-to study and a related video can be viewed here. All the League studies, which can be viewed here, focus on outstanding placemaking initiatives and programs being done in communities throughout Michigan. The St. Joseph program is an excellent example of cultural economic development – one of the eight placemaking assets identified by the League.

The Belz family photo album starts out in 2007 (Hot Cars Cool Beaches was the theme that year) when the youngest child in the family of four girls is about six months old, said Cindy Belz, who took most of the photos of her daughters along with her husband Eric. The album then shows the girls (Mackenzie; 16; twins Sierra and Kaleigh, 13; and Taylor, 7) growing up and smiling gleefully next to the various art pieces in subsequent years through 2012 the year of the “Beached Pirates.” They’re shown playing with farm animals in 2011’s “Barnyard at the Beach”; petting dogs in 2010’s “Hot Diggity Dogs”; sailing away in various aquatic vessels during 2008’s Boats-n-Beaches theme; and adventuring with wild beasts in 2009’s “Surf ‘n Safari”.

Cindy Belz said she made the photo album as a gift for her parents, St. Joseph residents Mike and Marci Kastner and her father showed it to Solon at City Hall, who then requested a copy of the album after being so impressed by it.

“St. Joseph is just a great town,” said Cindy Belz, whose family lives outside of Kalamazoo. “I tell everybody I know about St. Joseph and the public art. It’s a great day trip for your family to go down there and look at the art – take in the fountain, the carousel, the whole atmosphere down there. You can easily make a full day out of it for your family. Plus, it’s inexpensive for a family to do. To look at art on the street doesn’t cost anything. But of course we always get ice cream and do some shopping.”

In addition to providing memories, the St. Joseph Public Art has accomplished the main things it was intended to do when city leaders embarked upon it more than a decade ago:

  • Eliminate the 33 percent vacancy rate among downtown storefronts;
  • Capitalize on the artistic talent that exists in the community;
  • And turn St. Joseph into a tourist destination for visitors and second-home buyers.

“When I first started here six years ago it was hard for our business to get through the winter and now we have steady cash flow all year long,” said Christopher Heugel, manager of The Boulevard Inn in downtown St. Joseph and a member of the St. Joseph City Commission. “Plus, the demand has grown during the summer.”

In addition, the art project has served as a catalyst to other related economic development efforts, including a downtown beautification movement, numerous festivals taking place year-round; and eventually the future development of the Silver Lake Beach, which now includes the Silver Beach Carousel, Silver Beach Amusement Park, Shadowland on Silver Beach ballroom; Curious Kids’ Discovery Zone and the Whirlpool Compass Fountain.

This year’s art project is extra special because it is directly tied to the restoration effort of St. Joseph’s two historic lighthouses located within eyesight of the downtown district. The 2014 theme is “Shining Sculptures – Lighting Up St. Joseph!, and consists of 30 lighthouse art pieces on display in and around the St. Joseph area from now until Sept. 26. Following the summer-long public display, the pieces will go up for sale in a public auction taking place Sept. 27. Proceeds from the sale will benefit the $2-million lighthouse restoration effort, Solon said.

“The Public Art project started out because we had a 33 percent vacancy rate in the winter here in our downtown when I started working for the city 16 years ago,” Solon said. “So we developed this to bring vibrancy to our downtown and over the years it’s really brought foot traffic, people love it. We are really becoming known as THE public art destination in the state of Michigan. Our occupancy is 100 percent occupancy now, so we’re very excited.”

Go here to view the case study and related video about the St. Joseph project. View dozens of photos from the art projects over the years in this Michigan Municipal League photo album on flickr.