Imlay City aims to reinvent itself with ‘Art in the Rough’

Pop-up art event Oct. 24 aims to help Michiganders see rural community in new light

IMLAY CITY — When Imlay City secured victory in the first round of the $10 million America’s Best Communities competition, local leaders knew they had a rare opportunity to revitalize their economy and reimagine the community’s future.

And they’re taking full advantage of it. They’ve come up with a unique idea to get people to rethink their perception of rural Imlay City.

The idea — to create ‘Pop Up’ art galleries in downtown Imlay City. Called “Art in the Rough”, the October 24 event will turn underutilized storefronts into small galleries for artists from across the state to showcase their work.

“This event is unlike anything we’ve ever done in Imlay City,” said Dana Walker, director of the Imlay City Downtown Development Authority. “It will help our neighbors understand our community is a truly special place to live and encourage visitors to see Imlay City in a new light.

“With the name Art in the Rough, we want people across the state to gain the sense that extraordinary opportunities and talent can be found in unexpected places like Imlay City,” Walker added. “There’s just so much untapped potential here.”

Art in the Rough is the brainchild of Mike Romine, the co-owner of The Mulefoot Gastropub, which was named one of the Top 100 Restaurants in America by OpenTable.

Mike Romine and his twin brother and Mulefoot co-owner Matthew Romine grew up in Imlay City and are committed to bolstering the community’s cultural scene, starting with their restaurant.

“Artists of all forms seem to add life and excitement to downtowns, whether the medium is sculpture, painting or food,” Mike Romine said. “The Mulefoot has participated as a ‘Pop Up’ restaurant in other communities, and it has been a tremendous experience. We get to show people in different parts of the state what we are all about, and the customer gets to experience a taste of Imlay City.”

While the art galleries will “pop up” in underutilized storefronts, Walker wanted to be clear the buildings are not empty.

“We have wonderful buildings in our downtown — and throughout Imlay City — that are currently available. They are not empty but filled with opportunity for entrepreneurs,” Walker said. “And at a time when many other small towns are struggling, our downtown vacancy rates are remarkably low.”Imlay City, which joined forces with Imlay Township and Attica Township to enter the nationwide America’s Best Communities contest, was awarded $50,000 to develop a comprehensive Community Revitalization Plan that outlines a bold vision and the steps the community will take to achieve it.

Along the way, Imlay City has received support and guidance from Dixon Schwabl, a marketing firm based in Rochester, N.Y. that served as Imlay’s Adopt-a-Community partner, contributing $15,000 of the city’s $50,000 prize.

Only 50 communities across the country advanced into the quarterfinals of the competition, which is sponsored by Frontier Communications, DISH Network, CoBank and The Weather Channel. The communities have until Nov. 6 to submit their Community Revitalization Plan to competition organizers.

The best plans — those with the most innovative ideas that can be effectively implemented — will win additional investment. The top three communities will share a total of $6 million in grand prizes. And the Imlay City team has its eyes set squarely on the very top prize of $3 million.

“Our Community Revitalization Plan isn’t only the key to the next step in the contest; it will also be used by city and township officials for years to come as a roadmap to revitalize our communities,” Walker said.

Art in the Rough will be an opportunity to celebrate the completion of the Community Revitalization Plan. It will be held in downtown Imlay City on Oct. 24 from 5-10 p.m. Third Street, downtown Imlay’s central corridor, will be closed to traffic, giving pedestrians full control of the street. Wine and beer tastings will be offered from a tent located on Third Street, downtown businesses will have extended hours, and the art will be housed in two buildings. Food from local restaurants will be available for purchase and a deejay will keep the atmosphere lively.

The cost for admission is $10 (presale) or $25 at the door, and tickets are available now at the City of Imlay City offices, Mulefoot Gastropub and online at

This event is for individuals 21 and over and proper identification will be required at entry. To encourage attendees to purchase artists’ work, art buyers will be refunded their $10 ticket fee and receive a $25 gift card to the Mulefoot Gastropub.

Details: Call 810-724-2135 or visit

Sponsored by Frontier Communications, DISH Network, CoBank and The Weather Channel, America’s Best Communities is a multi-stage, three-year competition that is providing $4 million in seed money and other support to assist communities as they develop new economic revitalization strategies. The top three communities — those with the most innovative proposals being effectively implemented — will share a total of $6 million in grand prize money. The winning community will be awarded $3 million, with $2 million for second place and $1 million for third. To learn more, visit — G.G.

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