Learning from Dig Jackson’s Success

This week, the League released the latest issue of our Review magazine. I’m proud to announce that it includes a new feature, “PlacePlans: Where Are They Now?”, which gives us an opportunity to check in with some of the cities who participated in the MSHDA-MSU-MML PlacePlans pilot program and see what progress they’ve made.

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In this issue, starting on p. 21, the focus is downtown Jackson, where we explore what factors laid the groundwork for their burgeoning downtown development boom. You can read the whole thing at http://www.mml.org/resources/publications/mmr/issues/jan-feb-2017/review-jan-feb-2017-web.pdf but here’s an excerpt focused on the lessons other communities can learn from Jackson:

While every city is unique, many core principles of place-based redevelopment port well from one community to the next. Jackson’s experience highlights the following lessons that apply broadly:

  1. Prioritize investment areas as a community and stick to that vision

City Manager Patrick Burtch credits the City Council with in Jackson with coming to a consensus several years ago that investing in downtown, the City’s core, is the top priority. Burtch equates downtown with the “nucleus of the cell” and says that “the cell dies without it.” Investing public dollars always comes with public relations hits, says Burtch, but your elected and appointed officials must “be willing to stay on that path, because you have to spend money to make money.”

  1. Public space investments create positive momentum and catalyze large private investments

John Burtka, President of Grand River Brewery and partner in several of the ongoing downtown developments, cites the Dig Jackson investments as the crucial launching pad because it told the world, “Hey, we’re serious!” Burtch and Burtka agree those investments changed the mindset of the private sector about Jackson.

  1. Visuals are crucial inspirational tools

Pushed by Burtch, the Beckett & Raeder team developed design renderings for Dig Jackson that went far beyond the bounds of normal streetscape improvements, into master planning and the beginnings of a form-based zoning approach. Burtch says those plans have been invaluable in convincing skeptical community leaders and investors to participate. “3D architectural renderings provide a vision that is not always easily understood by those that are typically acting in differing disciplines,” he says.

  1. Engage anchor institutions, even those not located in the priority geographic area

The Jackson Anchor Initiative is an excellent case study on the power of getting important institutions rallied behind, and often leading, the community’s vision. In Jackson’s case, it has led to significant investments in downtown from institutions that are not even located there. According to Dr. Burtch, “the Anchor Initiative provides a significant measure of political coverage for a City Council that must make decisions regarding public investment in the urban core that are easily misunderstood”.

  1. Communicate through every medium possible

The City engaged the University of Michigan’s Citizen Interaction Design program to develop an excellent set of communication tools about the Dig Jackson project (see examples at digjackson.com), helping community leaders to allay fears about the disruption and costs associated with construction.