Flint, Michigan's premiere DIY mecca has closed and reopened more than once. There's a lesson in its history.
Joel Rash calls it his "country music year."
In 2010, Rash’s girlfriend broke up with him on New Year’s Eve; on his birthday, he was laid off from his job running an incubator and entrepreneurial program at the University of Michigan, Flint. At 44-years-old, he was unemployed and unattached. Clearly, Rash thought, it was time to reopen an all-ages DIY punk rock venue in downtown Flint, Michigan.
Oddly enough, the city was thinking the same thing.
To fully understand this story we have to start back in the 1980s, when the collapse of Flint’s automotive industry, the subsequent failures of several high-profile economic development projects, and the damaging effects from years of suburban migration positioned the city’s once thriving downtown as an inexpensive, blank slate.
"It was a ghost town down here when we started out," Rash recalls. He opened his first Flint music venue back in 1987, in the basement of the historic but waning 2,000-seat Capitol Theater. Chris Everson, general manager of the Flint Downtown Development Authority, recalls the time after a show when the singer of his former band rode naked on a moped for half an hour through the streets of downtown. "No police, nothing," Everson muses. "Nobody was here."
Rash eventually put $500 down and purchased an abandoned shoe store in 1994, the first of a handful of downtown homes for the venue he and his friends christened, Flint Local 432.
Fairly quickly, the venue began to help transform Flint's downtown. A tightly knit music scene developed, with shows attracting an estimated annual attendance of over 15,000. Surrounding local businesses extended their hours to serve their new clientele. "When these punk rock kids rolled in… they immediately had a sense of ownership," says Rash. "No one else was there."
It didn't take long before young entrepreneurs involved in the music scene began moving to and starting businesses in downtown Flint. Suddenly there was a tattoo parlor, a barbershop, a t-shirt company, and a graphic design firm. Flint Local 432 had become a training ground to develop professional musicians as well, feeding internationally recognized bands such as Fun, Good Charlotte, Chiodos, and The Swellers.
Coinciding with Flint Local 432’s success, in the 2000s the city and nonprofits alike coalesced around a renewed interest in the potential of Flint’s downtown, resulting in streetscape improvements, building renovations, art walk events, and successful summer festivals. "It was organic, not top-down," Rash says. "It was laying the groundwork for a more sustainable, active, diverse, functional downtown."
But then in 2006, Flint Local 432 closed. Many of the core volunteers had transitioned into substantial full-time positions outside of the venue, including Rash. Still, the closure left a vacuum downtown. Several thousand young adults were suddenly absent.
Flash forward four years and a freshly unemployed, newly single Rash thought it was time to revisit Flint Local 432. He wrote a proposal for a new version of the venue to be part of a nonprofit organization, Red Ink Flint, where he now serves as director. A $200,000 grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation followed and Flint Local 432 reopened in May 2012.
The venue met with immediate success upon reopening. Plans for 2013 include hosting over 150 art, music, film, dance, and theater events. The space also the hosts meetings for YES Flint, a youth-oriented entrepreneurial program where experts teach the basics of starting a micro-business. It is not uncommon for band members to be among the students. "We constantly remind bands that every band is their own creative economy business," says Rash.
The new Flint Local 432 also has an in-house business incubator space, currently occupied by Bearded Lady Records. This breadth of programming is even more impressive considering their annual budget is comparatively small to many other traditional arts organizations – a reflection of the depth of experience in running an all-ages DIY venue on a shoestring budget and the strong commitment of volunteers and board members.
With a country music year vanishing in the rearview mirror of downtown Flint’s continuing redevelopment, Rash is upbeat. "It’s pretty gratifying to be at the point where we're building a platform that a lot of different people are able to use to advance their goals that relate to youth, art, development, and entrepreneurship."
He then mentions that he has to meet a local craft group looking for a place to start a Flint chapter of Stitch ‘n Bitch. "They are interested in our PA set-up, because the last place they tried said they were too loud."