Will Cool Cities Help Lansing?

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It may not look like much now, but if Portland Mayor James Barnes has it right, the city's riverfront will be a hub of activity soon.

"We're going to have businesses, coffee shops. [People] can watch boats going up and down the river," Barnes said in an interview Sunday afternoon.

They'd be watching those boats from the new boardwalk under construction along the Grand River. It comes with a cost of roughly $1 million. Of that, $100,000 comes from Cool Cities money. It's the same state program that awarded Lansing two grants this past week.

"I've never seen the state work in such an unbureaucratic way," Barnes said, describing the program. Barnes should know -- he works for the state's lottery division.

Thanks to the Cool Cities grant, much of the rest of that million dollar project is funded by more state grants, including one to add loft apartments to downtown buildings along the riverfront.

"The first thing you have to do is bring [people downtown]," Barnes said, adding that the best way to do it is to create apartments and condos in the heart of the city.

And Portland has seen some demand for downtown housing. But the city got the Cool Cities money for the new riverfront project back in 2004. It's just now under construction. The mayor says it moved slowly at first, due to the city and state's inexperience in projects like these.

Business leaders have watched that process unfold. Ken Kramer owns an office building overlooking the new boardwalk. Despite the delays, he says he sees the notoriety that comes with a Cool Cities grant as a positive.

"Definitely seen a lot more traffic, a lot more new people," he said. Since refurbishing his building in 2000, he says he's filled it with 12 office tenants.

Many residents seem pleased with the overall improvements downtown as well. That includes Malin Kenyon, who moved to Portland from San Fransisco a few years back.

She says she likes what she's seeing in the small town, including the boardwalk.

"I love the outdoors, so I'd rather be outside and eat a meal than be inside," Kenyon said.

Exactly the attitude city leaders hope residents and out of town visitors will adopt -- giving new boardwalk businesses plenty of customers.

Barnes says if all goes according to schedule, the boardwalk will open in late October or early November.

It's an indication that if Lansing's Cool Cities experience is anything like Portland's, it could take a few years to see bricks-and-mortar evidence of improvement.