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Saline's Amped Up Alley

Bob Rosenberger at Leather Bucket Alley in Saline

The former Saline Fire House.  They stored their leather buckets to put out fires in the alley across the street

Leather Bucket Alley looking east

Bob Rosenberger at Leather Bucket Alley in Saline

Bob Rosenberger at the Saline Main Street Offices

Leather Bucket Alley looking west

Being caught in a dark alley at night is supposedly a dire fate. In downtown Saline, however, people are going out of their way to spend their evenings in the newly christened Leather Bucket Alley, and there's nothing scary or suspicious about their meet-ups. What was once a typical dirty, cluttered, underutilized alley is now an active community space, full of patio seating for adjacent restaurants, flowers and a new decorative archway.
"It creates a sort of a pocket park, a meeting space and and opportunity to gather and just enjoy  the day," says Saline Main Street Manager Bob Rosenberger. "In nice weather, people love to have those spaces."
Alleys don't often get much attention. From big cities to small towns, alleys are often places that don't count. They hold garbage. They're where workers take cigarette breaks. Alleys are often the places where people go to be not seen, and they end up looking like nowhere the public would want to spend much time seeing anyone.
Communities like Saline have been seeing alleys in a new light recently. Rather than dumping grounds, clean, snazzy alleyways can be utilized as community spaces, second storefronts, pleasant thoroughfares and more. With a bit of community engagement, big ideas and some investment, Saline became one of many cities across the state to turn an underutilized alley into a downtown asset when it dedicated Leather Bucket Alley in August of last year.
A Boost for Businesses
The August ribbon cutting of the newly beautified alley came after about a year of work by Saline Main Street volunteers, businesses and partners. Volunteers invested hours in planning, a concrete slab was replaced, the archway and planters were constructed, and property owners planted flowers and invested considerable funds cleaning up the rear entrances of their businesses.
Why the private investment? Because a tidy, usable alley is good for business. 
"It gets lots of use because the restaurants put tables out there and people and they enjoy the summer weather," Rosenberger says. "On Thursday nights they get to listen to music downtown and it's just really a lot of fun."
A sidewalk cafe is just one way downtowns use their renovated alleyways, but beautifying the rear entrances of downtown businesses has other positive impacts. 
"It works as a second storefront for them," says Kelly Larson, design specialist for the Michigan Main Street Center.
A common complaint in downtowns is the lack of convenient parking, even when hundreds of spaces are often available behind buildings. When rear entrances are as inviting as the front, the plentiful parking areas also become the most convenient ones.
"If you create an inviting, not intimidating environment, people will see you back door as a convenient entrance," Larson says.
Community Engagement
Many volunteers were involved in the planning of the project, but when the bulk of Saline's alley improvements were nearly ready to be unveiled, even more community members got the chance to be a part of its creation. Saline Main Street took to the internet to crowdsource names for the alley. 
"The naming process was kind of cool, because everybody has a little ownership now," says Rosenberger. 
Citizens suggested names, and the top entries were then voted on by the public. The winning suggestion reflects not only the community's participation, but also Saline's history. Long ago, the alley was across the street from the firehouse. Back when leather buckets were used to carry water to fires, the alley was their storage place.
"It keeps the history alive," Rosenberger says. "And it helps people take pride and ownership in the space." 
The community still has some work left to do. Forthcoming are lights to be strung across the alley, a plaque to explain the historic significance of the name and ongoing maintenance of the space. 
A Downtown Domino Effect
The effort is worth it, Rosenberger believes, because Leather Bucket Alley isn't just a good thing for the adjacent businesses, but the entire downtown. 
Similar community benefits can be seen in other downtowns that have beautified alleyways. In Marshall, a large effort to bury power lines have made their back alleys more attractive for visitors. Riverside communities, such as Manistee, Boyne City and Portland have capitalized on their waterfronts by renovating alleys. Howell has a beautified alley that is now integral to community events.
"Nicer alleys kind of expand opportunities for downtowns in terms of event space, where to put music, expanded opportunities for business owners, or connect an asset with a river," says Larson. "I think in every community there is a different need and an alley can kind of help provide the answer to whatever that need is." 
For some cities, those needs are met through large infrastructure projects such a new curb cuts and cement, and in yet others, some volunteer and business owner elbow grease is enough to do the trick. In Saline, Leather Bucket Alley was a blend of all the above, and Rosenberger expects the impact to be just as widespread.
"I think it's a benefit to the whole downtown and community in general," he says. "If someone is having a dinner outside at Mangiamo, they will probably go for a stroll afterwards and shop."
One thing is for certain: it looks a lot nicer than it did back in its garbage and employee smoke break days. And all it took to get the project started was for some people to see the old alley in a different light. 
"I believe there are a lot of people who didn't see it much beyond an alley," says Rosenberger. "Now, it's turned into something that has been a source of pride for Saline." 

Natalie Burg is project editor for Issue Media Group's placemaking series, underwritten by the Michigan State Housing and Development Agency.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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