New law could end confusion in Michigan over Flint name

By Anna Liz Nichols
Associated Press/ Report for America

FLINT TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — Kevin Stiff wants everyone to know that even though Flint Township, where he runs his small business, shares a name with the city that in recent years faced a lead-in-water crisis, they are not the same place.

Stiff, who owns The Dive Shop, said that being confused with the city of Flint over the years has cost the township business, and a possible name change allowed under a new state law is "that winning lottery number."

The confusion in Michigan is not isolated to the Flints. As many as 352 of the state's 1,240 townships share a name with at least one other township. One name, Grant, is shared by 11 townships. That number doesn't include places like Flint Township that share a name with cities or counties.

Until recently, townships in Michigan had no authority to change their names, unlike cities and villages. That ended last month when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a law to allow it.

Now, if two-thirds of a township's governance board and then a majority of residents approve a new name, the township can rename itself. The new name must remain for at least 25 years before the township is allowed to try and rename again.

Flint Township, which shares a border with the city of Flint, has been considering a name change for decades as the neighboring city faced troubles including high crime and poverty. And in 2014,  when the Flint water crisis began, Flint Township had people avoiding the township — even though the community of 30,000 had it had its own water source.

"I probably had close to eight or 10 people that did not want to take classes because they were going to get in our pool that had 'the city of Flint water,'" said Stiff, whose business offers scuba diving equipment and training.

He said he had to get a letter from the health department and show customers bills that proved the township is on a different water system — and even that didn't persuade all the people scheduled for classes to still come. Township restaurants had signs in their windows saying the water was not the same as the city's.

"Small businesses around are closing their doors, you know, I mean, left and right, and I'm just trying to survive," said Stiff, who after 36 years in business has no plans to leave.

State Rep. David Martin, whose district neighbors the Flints, sponsored the legislation so that all townships in the state could set themselves apart.

"If you share a same name, and say you have a toxic spill or something terrible happens in your community and you're trying to attract economic development, that could be a deterrent," the Genesee County Republican said. 

It's more than economic, township officials say. When the city of Flint held a recall election in 2017 of then-Mayor Karen Weaver, over 100 people called the township clerk to complain that there weren't enough polling places even though the vote was only for city residents, said Jerry Preston, who heads a committee to consider a name change.

The Civil War was a driving factor in many of Michigan's duplicate township names, said Catherine Mullhaupt, an attorney with the Michigan Townships Association.

Of the 11 townships that share a name with five townships or more, six of them are believed to be connected to people from the Civil War era. The state has 11 Grant townships, nine Sherman townships and eight Lincoln townships, according to the association.

When Union Army veterans returned from the war, many who served under Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union Army to victory, wanted to honor him, said Steven Ramold, an Eastern Michigan University professor. The state likely allowed the duplications because it was less confusing at the time for rural townships with limited connections to have the same names.

"Veterans in different parts of the state, perhaps unaware that a Grant, Sherman, or other name had already been used, organized their own township with the name they preferred," Ramold said. "When Grant became president, I imagine the desire to have one's locality named for him became even more desirable."

Flint Township for decades has looked at over 100 names, with Carman Hills, in honor of one of the town's settling families, being a front-runner.

Stiff said he hopes that the name will get changed to something that distinguishes the community.

"There's a lot of people in outlying areas, Detroit and Brighton and Lansing that go, 'I don't want to go to Flint. And that's not good," Stiff said. "I tell them all the time we're not Flint."
Anna Liz Nichols is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.