Great People do Great Engagement

Last week something pretty cool happened: 200 people attended a community visioning workshop in Vassar, MI. The city has a population of about 2,600, so a 7% turnout is a success worth celebrating.pavilion

This visioning event was pretty unlike most organized through a traditional charrette. When I first sat down with the local steering committee as part of our PlacePOP initiative, leaders said they wanted to host an event people actually wanted to come to. They named the project Vassar Vision and decided to host their first event as a “Taste & Talk” to combine two things most people love: food & talking! The Taste & Talk was held on the project site and had barbeque, ice cream floats, games, and plenty of social time. Ronald McDonald was even there.

There is a lot that went into the event, and there’s still a lot to come. However, here’s a quick look at what made the Taste & Talk so successful:

The Place: Ready for Change

Corner Deli is opening downtown Vassar this summer and owners gave out free samples during the Taste & Talk.

Corner Deli is opening downtown Vassar this summer and owners gave out free samples during the Taste & Talk.

Vassar is about two square miles of Tuscola County, located about 15 minutes east of Frankenmuth. Like almost every Michigan community, Vassar lost people, industry, and business in the crash and is working hard to rebuild what was once there. But they don’t just stop there; residents want Vassar to be better than it ever was.

What’s noticeable about Vassar is that people seem excited and ready for change. At the Taste & Talk, my colleagues and I heard zero negative comments. When was the last time that happened at your community meeting? (I’m sure there were a few naysayers present, but we certainly didn’t hear them.)

This past October, council hired a new city manager, Brian Chapman, and encouraged him to go big. He’s young, smart, and off to a strong start in the community. Vassar is also experiencing a pretty unique boom in their downtown. Six new businesses have just opened or are about to open on the same small downtown strip. Residents are thrilled to have a new downtown boutique, coffee shop, and restaurant and they want to make sure these businesses are here to stay. After seeing downtown businesses close in the past, people who love Vassar are eager to step up and do what they can to make sure these businesses succeed.

The Project: Building Momentum, Generating Ideas, Expanding Capacity

After seeing information on the League’s PlacePOP program, Chapman invited me to lead a placemaking workshop this past February. During the workshop, about 30 local leaders learned about placemaking and brainstormed how Vassar can better prioritize place. Attendees broke off into discussion groups and every group identified the same location as an area in need for some TLC. I’ve actually never seen that happen before.

Attendees brainstormed hundreds of ideas during the event.

Attendees brainstormed hundreds of ideas during the event.

The T. North Pavilion area is adjacent to downtown and encompasses a pavilion, play structure, gigantic parking lot, river, drain, and a few miscellaneous buildings mostly used for storage. The pavilion gets some use throughout the year for hockey tournaments, basketball, farmers market, and concert series, and the play structure gets used by kids and young families in the warmer months. The rest mostly just sits there.

When every workshop group identified this area as a top priority, the city took action. They hired the League as project manager to act as a neutral, outside facilitator and to prevent already over-worked city staff from having to manage a new project. Chapman put together a foundational steering committee to guide and make decisions on the project, and the steering committee continues to grow as more and more stakeholders get excited and involved.

Vassar Vision, carried out from late March through September, is an engagement-based process that will develop a concept design and programming plan for the T. North Pavilion area. The project also serves as an important way to unify the community, have fun, and find new leaders who can take the lead on current and future community-wide initiatives.

The People: The Most Important Part

Rebel Soul opened downtown Vassar this spring and gives residents and visitors a unique shopping experience.

Rebel Soul opened downtown Vassar this spring and gives residents and visitors a unique shopping experience.

As in every community, there are some incredible people who make up Vassar. Sandy Keys, for example, is an elderly woman almost solely responsible for getting all nine of the Taste & Talk’s food vendors to host a free tasting table. Although Sandy spent May traveling the country for her grandchildren’s graduations, baptisms, and more, she never stopped doing outreach for the event. “I’m just a volunteer,” Sandy tells people, but it’s clear she’s a lot more than that.

Star Filkins recently opened her boutique, Rebel Soul, in downtown Vassar. Star and her husband moved back to Vassar to be closer to their family as they raise their kids but the transition back home was harder than they expected. As a young mom who had lived in many other places across the country, Star felt there wasn’t much in Vassar for her. She decided to open her shop because she wanted to start building community for herself and for people like her. “This is where I live, where I work, and where I’m raising my children,” Star said. “I’ve seen how awesome other places are and I want Vassar to be like that.”

The owner of Vassar Theatre gave out free popcorn during the event.

The owner of Vassar Theatre gave out free popcorn during the event.

Andreas Fuchs re-opened the downtown Vassar Theatre late last year, which now acts as an important downtown anchor. Andreas thinks of his theatre as more of a gathering place than a movie theatre. “It’s very clear to me that theatre is about community,” he said. “Yes it’s also about movies but it’s more about people. People see movies!” Andreas brings free popcorn just about wherever he goes and hosts costume parties, giveaways, and discussions based on the moves the theatre shows. It’s people like Andreas, Star, and Sandy who make the community what it is.

The Taste & Talk event was both fun and effective, and it happened because the steering committee has ownership and decision-making power over the project. Andreas, Star, and Sandy don’t care about charrettes, they care about their community. And they, along with the rest of the steering committee, hosted an event that was right for Vassar.

I’m looking forward to seeing our design consultants work their magic as they review the hundreds of ideas attendees generated about the use and aesthetics of the space. We’ll be back doing more creative engagement in August as part of Vassar’s Riverfest. I’m guessing it will be another unique and impactful event!

Visit Placemaking.MML.org/PlacePOP for more information on the PlacePOP program. Stay updated with Vassar’s project by joining their Facebook group.