PHOTOS BY // JENNY LANE STUDIOS
Taking a walk through downtown Flint lately will evince something different as there is a brisk bustling of activity not seen in many years. People from all ages and walks of life are roaming the sidewalks joining other patrons in the refreshing choices of culinary fare available in the trendy restaurants. The rejuvenated Capitol Theatre is back as a destination entertainment venue along with other entrepreneurial, chic businesses sprouting up, something not seen in decades. Adding to all this revitalization is the operation of longtime community stalwarts Flint Farmer’s Market and University of Michigan-Flint being as popular as ever.
Undoubtedly, this dynamic resurgence did not happen overnight. It has been a long and arduous process dominated with testy challenges, including the inevitable failures. But let us keep in mind that among the cohesive collaboration of some dedicated local groups and organizations, there are the people within these factions who must make it happen. One such committed person is Flint born and bred: Phil Shaltz.
Revitalizing Downtown with Uptown Six
By day, he is CEO of Shaltz Automation, one of the fastest growing automation companies in Michigan and northern Ohio. Locally founded and based in Flint since 1975, they are experts in robotics, automation, pneumatics, controls, safety, vision and mechatronics. A product of Flint Central High School and Michigan State University, he has seen the heyday of downtown Flint and, while realizing those years in the 1950s and 1960s were unique, always believed a downtown area is a community’s center. But it was a personal experience that left him more determined than ever. He remembers when his adult children, Carrie and Jason, decided to leave Flint in the early 2000s while still in their 20s.
“They left because there were not any opportunities here,” Shaltz admits. “I started thinking; I did not want other parents and grandparents to have their kids leave and never come back. I knew at that time, my kids will never come back to Flint and I had to do something to stop that. This was my impetus on how we can create an environment that I grew up with in the 50s and 60s, to get that excitement of going downtown, that hub of activity – the center of the community.” To take action and get things going, he got involved with the Uptown Six group, an organization with six other local businesspeople who were a part of a past flourishing downtown with a similar vision for a community center in downtown Flint. Today, the partners include Troy Farah, Gary Hurand and Ghassan Saab. According to Shaltz, they collectively remembered a few previous endeavors for improvements but realized a majority of the concerns were outsiders coming in to try to make Flint a better place.
Shaltz went on to say, “One of the things that made our group different was, whether we failed or succeeded, we were not going anyplace so we had to succeed because we could not run away to another state.” He added they all philosophically agreed if there were a strong community center, the momentum would expand to benefit the entire county along with surrounding counties.
Hence, the Uptown Six established rules to place a cap on financial contributions, no personal guarantees and never give up no matter what happens, but the first two were broken within the first year. To further strengthen their efforts, Uptown Six formed a joint venture with the Uptown Reinvestment Corporation and formally titled this enterprise Uptown Development.
In the mid-2000s Uptown Six launched a few renovation projects, such as the Economy Shoe Store (now Café Rhema) and the First Street Lofts and combined three structures to form the Rowe Building along with the new Wade Trim building. Aside from the Uptown Six, Phil continued his endeavors by assembling a team to start the 501 Bar and Grill.
“Once we built the vision within the community that downtown Flint is going to come back,” Shaltz states, “things happened quick and began to materialize.” To his point, the University of Michigan-Flint (UM-Flint) constructed a new 309-bed dormitory and the venerable Durant Hotel was rejuvenated. “Those projects happened because of the resurgence of downtown – people started to believe this one is for real and the ball is still rolling,” he says as a matter of fact. Shaltz is also involved in restaurants Table and Tap, Flint Crepe Company, two entities in the Farmers Market and X, the new speakeasy next to Table and Tap, as well as GoodBoy Clothing Company.
But it was in 2010 when Shaltz realized their efforts were making progress. It was then that Dave Lurvey, a local construction company owner, announced he was opening the former Blackstone’s Menswear store as a restaurant. What made this significant was that Lurvey used his own funds and did not rely on Uptown Developments.
“That is when I knew we were successful,” Shaltz proudly claims. Since then, other entrepreneurs have come in and set up their businesses partly due to the belief in what was going on this time; the downtown resurgence is for real.
Shaltz recognizes the support from the city of Flint and the Genesee Regional Chamber of Commerce has been helpful and credits other Flint businesspeople, such as onthetown 33 Phil Hagerman’s renovation of the Dryden Building and the Ferris Wheel becoming a hub for new businesses. Glen Wilson’s plans for the venerable Masonic Temple and the formation of the University Avenue Corridor Coalition are initiatives keeping the spirit of revitalization alive. Look around downtown and see projects materializing, such as a major housing and retail development on the site of the former YWCA building and construction of a new Hilton Hotel on Beach and First Streets, and according to Shaltz, more developments are planned in the near future.
As Shaltz reflects, he sees his vision with the Uptown Six coming to fruition. “We started with an idea to stabilize downtown so that people, customers and business owners feel that here is a place to invest. I want to help entrepreneurs be successful in business so we can attract more customers to Flint and employ more people because we need a platform to hire more people.”
Building Community with Diapers and Blueberries
For Shaltz, it is not all about brick and mortar but the social aspect of uniting a community too. In 2012, he established the Flint Diaper Bank, a nonprofit organization, from reading about similar diaper bank organizations around the country. Although it was an “incubating” thought for many years, it wasn’t born until he had a conversation with friend Angie Hendershot, an ABC12 news anchor who started a local diaper drive.
“I talked to her about a vision I had for a Flint Diaper Bank and obviously, was very receptive,” he mentions. She earnestly became his partner in the diaper bank. The new organization was successful in getting the logistics donated and paying only for the diapers. The Food Bank of Eastern Michigan stepped up and became the warehouse distribution model. Truckloads of diapers are delivered and stored there and are distributed to people in need through its 23 agencies in Flint. According to Shaltz, the need in Genesee County is about 15 million a year to diaper all children ages 3 and under living under the poverty level.
“The need is so severe we will never be able to serve each and every child,” he says. “We strive to deliver 1.2 million diapers every year thanks to TV-12 and ELGA Credit Union’s annual diaper drive and no administrative costs.” In addition, Shaltz will personally raise funds throughout the year to reach their goal. He admits this program is a stopgap as they simply cannot completely fulfill the overall need for diapers. He adds, “This is unfortunate because I like to fix problems rather than Band-Aid a problem. But we are making an impact.” While the Flint Diaper Bank is having an influence in the community, the Shaltzes’ Blueberries initiative has created a buzz in this city unlike any other.
It all started when he and Ardele, his spouse of 49 years, went on a zip-lining excursion in Sitka, Alaska. While talking with a college-aged seasonal fellow manning the zip line, Phil was taken back when he asked how he was doing; the young man was seriously distraught over this year’s blueberry crop. At the time, Shaltz never thought much about the response, but when he got home, he began to reflect on that experience. He began to assess – right, wrong or indifferent – for that young man, his issues are the blueberries.
Shaltz recalls, “I started thinking how people on a day-to-day basis cannot appreciate another person’s concerns because they are not my own concerns; so we just walk away. However, for you they are real concerns that need to be addressed by somebody and not simply look the other way. I started to think about how sad that is. We should ask what concerns each other and if possible, help with those concerns. As a member of a community, I should try to make life a little better by helping to take care of your blueberries.”
He placed a billboard along the expressway and caused an acute awareness as to what exactly this “blueberries” thing is. “The community went crazy, had no idea what it meant!” Shaltz remembers. Local news outlets picked up on the billboard and finally found out Shaltz was responsible. After he explained the premise, the story gathered national attention. Moving forward, he and Marjory Raymer (former editor of The Flint Journal) became business partners and set out to ask 20 adults to do three random acts of kindness, writing a story about their experience which would then be printed in the Journal. To Shaltz and Raymer’s surprise, “It failed miserably. People told us they were just too busy.” Not to be discouraged, they determined they started with the wrong audience. Shaltz approached 10 schools and contacted 10 teachers. Each school selected 10 students to go out among the community and perform three random acts of kindness. The first year was a rousing success, culminating in a cash prize.
Now in the program’s sixth year, 1,500 students are performing random acts of kindness throughout our community. They have a kickoff and recognition ceremony each year, and along with cash prizes awarded to the schools with UM-Flint, Phil and Ardele provide a full-year scholarship to one of the overall winners while Huntington Bank partners with UM-Flint, awarding a half-year scholarship. Shaltz emphasizes among its success, the point of the program is to try to change kids’ social “DNA.”
“With the onset of social media,” Shaltz notes, “our heads seemed to be preoccupied in a phone. We want them to look up and look out in our community and try to find the little nuggets of blueberries – a person’s little concerns. We call these blueberry moments. We want to ingrain in our community for kids to help. We want to live in a community where we can rely on people who can help us with our little blueberries.” The entire Blueberries initiative is personally funded by the Shaltzes.
Making a Lasting Impact
He admits the flurry of activity contained by the Uptown Six has somewhat subsided, but this actually allows him to devote more time to his executive administration endeavors. He is currently involved with the Board of Managers of Hurley Hospital, Huntington Bank’s Community Board, the Hurley Foundation, United Way Board of Directors and Crim Foundation’s Board Emeritus. In addition, he was recently appointed to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation Executive Committee by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Shaltz shows no signs of letting up in his pursuit of making Flint a better place. He is a master of time management as he continually balances his life with a physical workout regimen including Brazilian Jiu Jitsu while at age 70, seemingly defying laws of geriatrics. He is one of a select few individuals who have run in every 10-mile Crim race and will be going for consecutive number 43 this year.
Always serving in a mentor’s capacity, he believes a person has a greater chance of making an impact in Flint instead of attempting to do so in a larger city.
“If you want to create an impact rather than just have a job, Flint is a great place and offers a great opportunity to do that. We persevere here in Flint. We have been knocked down but always come back stronger. Most importantly, don’t underestimate Flint; don’t ever give up on Flint!”