Several presentations at the Hometown Summit have featured the positive role that universities and colleges and other types of research institutions, such as non-profit think tanks, can play in helping their host community develop and grow.

Erie, PA, for example, has a homegrown think tank, the Jefferson Educational Society, which brings in researchers and big thinkers from other places and helps them apply their work to the local context.

24 educational institutions in the Milwaukee area have launched the Commons, an effort to train students to become entrepreneurs and get them more engaged in the region, increasing the chances that they stay after graduation.

I was impressed by the unifying feature of all of these institutions: a core mission statement or goal of helping their host city, specifically around economic growth. Johns Hopkins University, for example, has laid out specific goals around talent attraction & retention for the City of Baltimore AND the University. Even better, they have goals around increasing city tax revenue.

So ask yourself if your community’s institutions have similar goals. If not, the advice from the speakers at the Hometown Summit is to ask and keep asking, taking advantage of the decentralized “silos” of these institutions to not take no for an answer. If the college president’s office doesn’t have the interest or the budget to take on these challenges, there’s a good chance another institute or office within the broader organization will.

I have the privilege this week of attending the Hometown Summit, a new national conference focused on sharing lessons and best practices from small and mid-sized cities. The organizers describe it as a “convening and celebration of leaders in small and mid-sized cities who have spearheaded some of the nation’s most creative and successful initiatives for community problem-solving.” 

This is the first of what will hopefully be a series of quick-hit thoughts from some of the best conference content.

One of the morning sessions, with the provocative title “Does Your City Seduce Talent?”, featured entrepreneurs from four cities – Charlottesville, VA, Syracuse, NY, Durham, NC and Milwaukee, WI – testing different ways to attract and retain the creative community. I gleaned the following lessons that cities of any size can pursue:

  1. Speed up your decisionmaking & approval processes – All the panelists spoke to the need to cycle through ideas and try things quickly. They need a host city that can enable that speed.
  2. Make people feel welcome – Customer service and a welcoming vibe, both when dealing with visitors and potential non-profit/business startups, are crucial to attracting and keeping people who might be the future changemakers.
  3. Celebrate and cultivate your grit – None of the entrepreneurs were interested in moving to a city that had it all, rather they wanted to be somewhere that had gaps and was interested in taking them on.
  4. Don’t get hung up on buzzwords – None of the leaders in the room started out to be “talent attraction initiatives” or “civic entrepreneurs.” Rather, they started a project because they loved a place and wanted to make it better. So go find those people and the rest will take care of itself.

mshda_fb-200x300The Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) recently announced a request for proposals (RFP) for a new “Neighborhood Enhancement Program” that provides communities an opportunity to fund placemaking projects in priority neighborhoods. MSHDA worked with the League and other statewide partners to develop the program and they are eager to receive creative and innovative proposals in three main categories: beautification, public amenities and infrastructure enhancement. MSHDA, in the first year of this program, is interpreting those categories broadly.

Cities must work through a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to apply. Proposals are due March 15. For complete details, visit the MSHDA website.

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.