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In the 1920s Owosso, Mich., produced auto industry supplies and other industrial goods. A five-story red-brick warehouse just off Main St. was once home to the world’s largest coffin-maker, the Owosso Casket Company, which produced 150 per day during the 1918 flu epidemic. That building, now four-fifths vacant, symbolizes Owosso’s prosperous past and troubled present. Is it possible for the building and the city of 15,000 to have a second life?
Owosso native Gordon Pennington, 59, knows second lives. He moved to and conquered New York City, becoming director of marketing for Tommy Hilfiger and other Fortune 500 companies. But the big city conquered him: Alcohol, cocaine, and divorce left him thinking of suicide until a morning in 1997 when he awoke to an impression of light that made him think the words “choose life” were burned on his retinas. “God was calling out to me,” Pennington recalls. He regained his faith in Christ and put his life together.
Meanwhile, Owosso appeared to be falling apart. Residents seemed generally resigned to Owosso, like so many other small Midwestern cities, losing to the metropolises their brightest and most ambitious young people. Some old houses were becoming tenements. When an arsonist’s fire in 2008 caused $5 million in damages to the Lebowsky Center, downtown Owosso’s venue for plays and concerts, that seemed like a symbolic coup de grace. Many residents wanted to tear down the historic building.
That same year, though, Pennington’s mother suffered a catastrophic stroke. (She died in 2012.) Pennington returned to Owosso and fell in love with it. He appreciated the city’s natural attributes—a location on the Shiawassee River amid Central Michigan’s rolling farmland—but he loved the history: Owosso was the hometown of America’s highest-paid author a century ago (James Curwood), our greatest impressionist painter (Frederick Carl Frieseke), and our most surprising presidential campaign loser (Thomas Dewey). The city had produced industrial innovations, including one of America’s first fiberglass cars.
Pennington began holding small coffee and dessert gatherings that grew into Owosso Friends and Neighbors (OFANS). The group in 2009 hosted a luncheon that became one of the largest meetings in Owosso’s history, with Pennington arguing that Owosso’s stately old houses, lower cost of living, recreational opportunities, and cultural legacy could attract digital nomads. He thought a critical mass of 20-somethings could decide to build careers and businesses in Owosso, instead of living crammed together while chasing Manhattan mirages.
‘Christ didn’t come to redeem businesses or music, He came to redeem people. If He lives in us, He should be in everything we put our hand to do.’ —Nicholas Pidek
Pennington built a team of creative Christians and others likely to understand the importance of faith and hope. Jordan Sovis, a 25-year-old videographer, created a music video about Owosso’s historical sites: It won first prize in a national contest sponsored by Home Depot. Nicholas Pidek, 28, who had built furniture, traveled with a rock band, and planned to move to New York with his college business degree, also responded to Pennington’s challenge to become a small-city pioneer. Pidek built a website, ShiaRide.org, aimed at bicyclists discovering local routes through rolling farmlands, including the 41-mile Clinton-Ionia-Shiawassee Trail.
Pidek and a former band mate plan to open a craft coffee bar in Owosso’s downtown. He says, “Christ didn’t come to redeem businesses or music, He came to redeem people. If He lives in us, He should be in everything we put our hand to do.” An older pioneer, Corinne Adams, created Abiding in the Vine, a tea room that serves 37 varieties including a vanilla and pomegranate tea. Neighbors and even strangers donated their fine bone china and furniture, and Teamap.com now calls her tea room the best in Michigan. When guests ask about the name, Adams tells them about chapter 15 of the Gospel of John, which describes Christ as the Vine and believers as the branches.
Crucially, though, Pennington’s vision includes people of many faiths with a common denominator of friendliness, whether arising from Christian belief or small-town manners. That’s essential because the obstacles are huge. One in eight Owosso residents lives below the poverty line, many houses have not been kept up, and some leaders have accepted mediocrity. “We need more working capital and more social capital if we are to become a leading incubator for small-town reinvention,” Pennington says.
STILL, OWOSSO IS GETTING SOME RECOGNITION for establishing an entrepreneurial environment. Talent Tribune, a national human resources blog, now ranks Owosso the best spot in Michigan for starting a small business, and the fifth best spot in the Midwest. The reason: 72 percent of Owosso’s business are small, and they’ve contributed to the creation of 2,400 new jobs in the Owosso area during the past five years. (That increased the number of jobs available by 7 percent and dropped the unemployment rate to 5.3 percent.)
Some downtown buildings such as the casket company’s former home are still mostly dead, but small businesses such as Lula’s, a Cajun- and Creole-themed restaurant selling jambalaya and gumbo soup, and the House of Wheels, a bike shop with a museum of vintage Schwinns, pull in visitors. And like a phoenix rising (in this case literally) from the ashes, the Lebowsky Center reopened last year completely refurbished with multicolored seats, a full lobby, and an extended stage.
The most important question is whether Owosso will be able to stop the brain drain that for decades has sapped the strength of many small cities: after all, politician Dewey moved to New York and painter Frieseke to France. But one Owosso philanthropy, the Cook Family Foundation, which once gave students scholarships to elite colleges yet made no provision for them to come home, now funds Owosso Fellows who work at local nonprofits during the summer. One fellow from Yale, Beata Fiszer, says the fellowship “exposed me to how a community runs and how one passionate individual can make a significant impact.”