Sault Ste. Marie Builds Sense of Place Through Creative Partnerships

streetsignRecently, a team of League staff members visited the city of Sault Ste. Marie on two separate missions: two staffers were there to film a new Town Gown “vlog” (video blog) on the city’s partnership with Lake Superior State University, and its vision to become a “university town” rather than simply a “town with a university.” The other duo was there to look into the city’s Historic Water Street project that is redefining the under-utilized waterfront running along the Soo Locks.

Those might sound like very different subjects. But both are examples of how city officials are engaging with citizens and collaborating with community partners to build a sense of place that is uniquely “the Soo.”

The city’s streetscape renovations and revitalization have provided a waterfront gathering place for people to relax, exercise, learn and celebrate. The placemaking project includes a new half-mile interpretive walkway stretching from the Soo Locks to the historic homes of some of the community’s most notable founders. The walkway features 33 informational panels detailing the area’s rich history from its beginnings as a Native American village to its establishment as Michigan’s oldest European settlement in 1668. City Hall, a recently repurposed historic Federal Building, is situated on historic grounds at the center of the walkway, providing a premier location for festivals and community gatherings, from weekend festivities to leisurely evening walks.saultstemarie-waterstreet

On the town gown front, Sault United is a steering committee composed of community leaders representing the City, the University, War Memorial Hospital, the area and intermediate school districts, the economic development corporation, and the downtown development authority. The effort is a direct result of a pilot project led by the League to help the city find new ways to evolve into a true university town.

In both cases, the city has opened its doors to creative partnerships on every level, from bringing LSSU students downtown for a zombie walk and haunted homecoming parade, to working closely with local native tribes to ensure the new Water Street project tells both sides of the community’s rich and colorful past with accuracy and mutual respect.

The results of these ongoing efforts are already visible in terms of economic impact and a reenergizing of the entire downtown. Thousands gathered downtown for the city’s and university’s newly combined Halloween festivities. A photography scavenger hunt encouraged students to explore the city’s landmarks and businesses. A whole calendar of first-time and annual events brought crowds to a newly vibrant Water Street in 2012, with even more events planned for 2013 and beyond.

If you haven’t been to Sault Ste. Marie in a few years and think the Soo Locks are all there is to see, then it’s time to plan another visit to “the place where Michigan was born.” But bring a big suitcase. Once you’re there, you just might want to stay.