As soon as we stepped out of the airport and onto the nearby platform for MAX Rail, my colleague Sarah Craft and I knew we weren’t in Detroit anymore. For only $2.50, this clean, quick, quiet light rail system whisked us to downtown Portland, where we got off just a block from our hotel – and the site of the National League of Cities State League Staff Workshop.

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Live music at Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland

Along the ride, several locals noticed our suitcases and engaged us in friendly conversation, asking us where we were from, where we were going, and pointing out local landmarks. We passed a farmer’s market, gatherings of food trucks, public plazas designed for concerts and other fun community activities, and walkable streets filled with people streaming in and out of stores, restaurants and offices. In short, we saw placemaking in action.

All of this set the stage for the State League Staff Workshop, the reason for our visit to Portland. We were part of a large contingent of league staffers from around the country who had come to learn and share their knowledge. As a first-timer, I discovered that state leagues come in all sizes – some as small as 2 or 3 staff members – but we all have the same dedication to the cities and towns we represent.

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Right off the bat, I was impressed with the generosity of my fellow workshop participants. At the Communications Networking Roundtable, everyone chimed in with questions and suggestions on everything from convention and video apps to social media strategies. When we broke into sessions, league staffers shared successes and lessons learned on a number of topics. One of my favorite sessions was on PR. The League of Arizona Cities and Towns showcased their Arizona Cities @ Work PR campaign, designed to highlight the great work being done in their cities. Samantha Womer and Rene Guillen brought plenty of campaign “bling” – mugs, tote bags, lanyards and more – which they gladly offered to everyone in the room.

My other favorite session was Don’t Reinvent Content … Reuse, Recycle, Reformat for Maximum Impact. Mary Brantner of the Municipal Association of South Carolina and Jennifer Stamps of the Texas Municipal League made the point that people generally need to see or hear something seven times to really get the message. They then shared ideas on how to publish content in a variety of formats on different platforms to meaningfully reach your members.

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Voodoo Doughnut

When I wasn’t engaged in a session, I took the opportunity to explore a little of downtown Portland. Just a block away was Pioneer Courthouse Square, affectionately known as Portland’s Living Room. This urban park hosts events almost every day of the year. I was lucky enough to enjoy live lunchtime music one day and sand sculptures the next day. Since there is no sales tax in Oregon, I made a quick dash into Macy’s and snapped up some summer bargains. I relished the local cuisine at Bottle & Kitchen and Clarklewis Restaurant. And, oh yeah, I definitely made a side trip to Portland’s infamous Voodoo Doughnut. At the 3rd Avenue location, placemaking had turned the alley alongside the shop into an inviting space with picnic tables and attractive landscaping. I soaked up the morning sun at one of those tables as I munched on a yummy chocolate-glazed old fashioned doughnut.

bike-sharingCycling used to be part of my personal transportation plan. On warm, sunny days, I loved riding my bike leisurely around my neighborhood near downtown Plymouth. Sometimes I had a destination in mind – usually the Dairy King on Main Street – and other days I just enjoyed feeling the breeze in my hair and admiring my neighbors’ beautiful flower gardens. Then along came my husband, who acted like he was training for a 100k ride through the mountains every time he hopped on his bike. I couldn’t keep up, so I gave up.

But the recent surge in bike-sharing programs in places like Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C. – and now Michigan – has piqued my interest. Like the legions of urban cycling enthusiasts, I appreciate the benefits to my health and the environment. But I’m also a fan of easily popping into stores where parking spaces are at a premium.

When I was in Chicago last summer, their new Divvy bike-share system was all the rage. Residents and tourists of all ages were renting one of the 3,000 distinctive-looking blue bikes and riding to offices, restaurants and beaches, happily avoiding traffic congestion and $25/day parking fees. The popular program, funded by federal grants and city funds, hopes to expand into suburban Oak Park and Evanston.

Bike-sharing is now catching on in Michigan. Communities are recognizing the benefits of less traffic congestion, more economic activity, cleaner air and better health that can be realized by adding a bike-sharing program to their transportation plans.

biking-in-Ann-ArborSoon, for just a few dollars, I’ll be able to jump on a bike housed at a kiosk near my Ann Arbor office, pedal to a cool restaurant for lunch, and work off the calories on my way back to work. No muss, no fuss, and no expensive gasoline sending toxic fumes into the atmosphere. Thanks to a $1.4 million budget and a partnership between the City of Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan and the Clean Energy Coalition, the ArborBike program is expected to launch this summer with 14 kiosks around downtown, the central U-M campus and North Campus.

Other Michigan cities have found creative ways to launch bike-sharing programs in their communities. Detroit hasn’t yet put a formal program into motion, but last summer, Rock Ventures, a major company with several Detroit locations, started a bike-sharing program for its employees. With nine racks and 60 bikes, they logged 6.500 rentals from July through November.

capital-community-bike-share2With limited funding, Lansing became home to Michigan’s first municipally-sponsored bike-sharing system. Capital Community Bike Share, which launched in October, saved money by using A2B Bike Share’s technology, buying cheaper bikes and focusing on four locations near Michigan Avenue. Eric Shertzing, the project’s director, sees the program as a template that could benefit other communities. He also envisions replacing his fleet with Michigan-made bikes.

In Traverse City, discussions are underway for a formal bike-sharing program. But in the meantime, Carter’s Compost operates a simple system with three bikes they loan out free for two days each. Their mission: “We are dedicated to building community by using the power of the bicycle to make composting super easy for our TC neighbors.”

This blog post is a response to the Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities group blogging event which asks, “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?”

Today’s mobile workforce is highly motivated by a sense of place. They seek out communities that suit their lifestyle before finding jobs and opening up businesses. This mindset makes “placemaking” vital to the long-term economic development of 21st century communities.

The Michigan Municipal League has identified eight essential assets that make communities the vibrant places that attract 21st century businesses and talent: physical design and walkability, green initiatives, cultural economic development, entrepreneurship, diversity, messaging and technology, transit and education. Our focus is on helping local officials identify, develop and implement strategies that will grow and strengthen these assets in their own community.

Many Michigan communities have already found unique ways to create a sense of place and boost economic opportunities for their residents. Here are just a few examples.

Ponyride

The sounds of buzzing saws, humming sewing machines and live bands playing everything from jazz to hip hop fill the air at Ponyride, a once-empty warehouse in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood.  The project’s whimsical name reflects its commitment to providing a fun place where socially-conscious artists and entrepreneurs can pursue their passion and share their knowledge, resources and networks. Co-working space adds another dimension to the building, blending authors, nonprofits, technology companies and even a lawyer into the eclectic tenant mix.

Ponyride was born out of owner Phil Cooley’s desire to see how the foreclosure crisis could have a positive impact on the community. Thanks to an abundance of community support, rents are kept low, enabling tenants like Detroit Denim, Smith Shop and Edible Wow to focus on developing their crafts. In return, tenants have to put in some sweat-equity to build-out their own work space and give back to Detroit through educational programs and volunteering. Ponyride’s studios and co-working space are in such high demand that newcomers may have to put their name on a waiting list.

soup-serving-siteDetroit Soup

Sharing a good meal with neighbors, business owners and community leaders is the jumping off point for Detroit SOUP, a grassroots initiative designed to raise money and support for local projects. After everyone’s appetite is satisfied, four people are given the opportunity to present their ideas for a project that will make their community a better place – anything from starting a small business, to running an after-school program, to cleaning up a park. Dinner guests ask questions, share ideas and vote on the project they like best. The winner leaves with the $5 per person donation that was thrown in the pot at the door. Down the road, winners attend a future SOUP dinner to report on their progress.

Detroit SOUP dinners bubbled up from a small group of people who were trying to improve their community but needed their neighbors’ support to get the job done. Since the first monthly dinner in 2010, Detroiters have showed up in strong numbers to raise almost $67,000 for Detroit-specific projects. Winners have included 10 small businesses, 15 community clean-ups or beautification projects, 6 food or urban agriculture-related projects, 5 art projects, and at least 15 youth development projects.

adrian-main-street-inlineMain Street Community Partnership

Red Paint Printing is thriving and renters are adding homey touches to upper floor apartments in a significant, yet long-neglected building on Adrian’s main street. The new landlord, Main Street Community Partnership, has provided stability for the printing business, enabling it to expand its operations within the building. Plans have even been made for this retailer to acquire ownership of the space over time. And recent façade and structural improvements to the building have ensured its long-term viability and enhanced its appearance. As a result, the whole downtown landscape looks more appealing.

All of this was made possible by a group of four local business and civic leaders who were inspired by a presentation about the power of investing in your own community. They gathered the support of 18 more concerned citizens, who agreed to invest $2,000 each into a limited-liability partnership established to acquire and redevelop the property. Since purchasing the building, the group has expanded the first floor retail, improved the condition of most of the apartments, and found higher quality tenants. Thanks to the donated work of partners, the project has been able to exceed initial financial projections.

FestiFools

In early April, humongous paper-mache puppets march down Main Street to the beat of lively music in Ann Arbor’s annual FestiFools event. Throngs of spectators fill the sidewalks and are thrilled when these majestic puppets stop to interact with them. Art students and community members collaborate on the creation of the paper-mache creatures. And anyone looking for a chance to be creative is invited to add their talents for singing, dancing, puppeteering or just plain schlepping glue.

The idea for the big-headed puppets sprang from the mind of Mark Tucker, for the “Art in Public Spaces” class he teaches at the University of Michigan. He saw the parade as an opportunity for people of different ages and backgrounds to work together and bring the arts to the community in a fun, whimsical way. Local government and civic group leaders provided FestiFools with the initial support it needed to get off the ground in 2007. Since then, this fun-filled, artistic event has become an annual tradition, drawing thousands of people onto the street to enjoy the foolishness.

Creativity shines all over the state as Michiganders launch placemaking projects designed to attract 21st century businesses and talent. To offer an up-close view of these projects, Recycle Herethe League has designed a series of Explore More mobile workshops. We’ll guide you through places where imagination and teamwork have transformed neighborhoods from dull to dazzling.

The first Explore More mobile workshop will travel through Detroit, where we’ve found places like Recycle Here! and The Alley Project that serve as unique canvasses for students and professional artists. Old buildings have become cool housing or great sites for business owners following their entrepreneurial dreams. And an abandoned railway has been converted into the Dequindre Cut Greenway, an inviting recreational trail filled with walkers and bikers. Destinations like these, and how they sprang to life, will be part of your adventure on an Explore More mobile workshop. We hope you’ll join us and get a flash of inspiration that you can translate into creative placemaking projects in your own community.

Register now for the first Explore More mobile workshop:

July 8 – Detroit

Jump on board and get inspired!