Enjoy this slide show illustrating the St. Joseph Public Art project through the years.

Susan Solon beams with pride as she thumbs through a family photo album on her desk at St. Joseph City Hall. And it’s not even her family.

It’s a photo album that the Belz family of Kalamazoo gave Solon, St. Joseph’s director of communications and marketing, illustrating their repeated visits to St. Joseph to see relatives and the city’s Annual Public Art. It’s really a 52-page visual thank you note to Solon and the city for contributing to their many summer memories.

“Isn’t that great,” Solon says of the album. “It shows how much people and families enjoy the public art year after year.”

The St. Joseph Public Art project began in 2004 as a way to bring visitors to the Lake Michigan shore community, but as the photo album shows the project has really done much more than that. The public art program is one of many “How-To” studies done by the Michigan Municipal League. The how-to study and a related video can be viewed here. All the League studies, which can be viewed here, focus on outstanding placemaking initiatives and programs being done in communities throughout Michigan. The St. Joseph program is an excellent example of cultural economic development – one of the eight placemaking assets identified by the League.

The Belz family photo album starts out in 2007 (Hot Cars Cool Beaches was the theme that year) when the youngest child in the family of four girls is about six months old, said Cindy Belz, who took most of the photos of her daughters along with her husband Eric. The album then shows the girls (Mackenzie; 16; twins Sierra and Kaleigh, 13; and Taylor, 7) growing up and smiling gleefully next to the various art pieces in subsequent years through 2012 the year of the “Beached Pirates.” They’re shown playing with farm animals in 2011’s “Barnyard at the Beach”; petting dogs in 2010’s “Hot Diggity Dogs”; sailing away in various aquatic vessels during 2008’s Boats-n-Beaches theme; and adventuring with wild beasts in 2009’s “Surf ‘n Safari”.

Cindy Belz said she made the photo album as a gift for her parents, St. Joseph residents Mike and Marci Kastner and her father showed it to Solon at City Hall, who then requested a copy of the album after being so impressed by it.

“St. Joseph is just a great town,” said Cindy Belz, whose family lives outside of Kalamazoo. “I tell everybody I know about St. Joseph and the public art. It’s a great day trip for your family to go down there and look at the art – take in the fountain, the carousel, the whole atmosphere down there. You can easily make a full day out of it for your family. Plus, it’s inexpensive for a family to do. To look at art on the street doesn’t cost anything. But of course we always get ice cream and do some shopping.”

In addition to providing memories, the St. Joseph Public Art has accomplished the main things it was intended to do when city leaders embarked upon it more than a decade ago:

  • Eliminate the 33 percent vacancy rate among downtown storefronts;
  • Capitalize on the artistic talent that exists in the community;
  • And turn St. Joseph into a tourist destination for visitors and second-home buyers.

“When I first started here six years ago it was hard for our business to get through the winter and now we have steady cash flow all year long,” said Christopher Heugel, manager of The Boulevard Inn in downtown St. Joseph and a member of the St. Joseph City Commission. “Plus, the demand has grown during the summer.”

In addition, the art project has served as a catalyst to other related economic development efforts, including a downtown beautification movement, numerous festivals taking place year-round; and eventually the future development of the Silver Lake Beach, which now includes the Silver Beach Carousel, Silver Beach Amusement Park, Shadowland on Silver Beach ballroom; Curious Kids’ Discovery Zone and the Whirlpool Compass Fountain.

This year’s art project is extra special because it is directly tied to the restoration effort of St. Joseph’s two historic lighthouses located within eyesight of the downtown district. The 2014 theme is “Shining Sculptures – Lighting Up St. Joseph!, and consists of 30 lighthouse art pieces on display in and around the St. Joseph area from now until Sept. 26. Following the summer-long public display, the pieces will go up for sale in a public auction taking place Sept. 27. Proceeds from the sale will benefit the $2-million lighthouse restoration effort, Solon said.

“The Public Art project started out because we had a 33 percent vacancy rate in the winter here in our downtown when I started working for the city 16 years ago,” Solon said. “So we developed this to bring vibrancy to our downtown and over the years it’s really brought foot traffic, people love it. We are really becoming known as THE public art destination in the state of Michigan. Our occupancy is 100 percent occupancy now, so we’re very excited.”

Go here to view the case study and related video about the St. Joseph project. View dozens of photos from the art projects over the years in this Michigan Municipal League photo album on flickr.

Representatives of the seven regional CEA communities are (from left) Gladstone Mayor Pro Tem Hugo Mattonen; Fenton Mayor Sue Osborn; Ithaca Councilmember L.D. Hollenbeck; Grandville Mayor Pro Tem Josh Meringa; East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett; Cadillac Mayor Carla Filkins; and Harbor Beach Mayor Gary Booms.

Representatives of the seven regional CEA communities are (from left) Gladstone Mayor Pro Tem Hugo Mattonen; Fenton Mayor Sue Osborn; Ithaca Councilmember L.D. Hollenbeck; Grandville Mayor Pro Tem Josh Meringa; East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett; Cadillac Mayor Carla Filkins; and Harbor Beach Mayor Gary Booms.

Placemaking can come in many different forms. It can be in the form of an after-school ski hill program, like the one in Gladstone in the Upper Peninsula. It can also be turning vacant old fire house into a vibrant restaurant in Fenton; or a flower beautification effort in Ithaca; or sharing services in the Lansing area; or revitalizing Grandville’s downtown; or starting a free bicycle rental program in Cadillac; and even doing self-performed dredging in Harbor Beach.

These projects are the seven regional finalists in the 2014 Michigan Municipal League Community Excellence Awards (CEA). They were selected during the Michigan Municipal League’s 2014 Capital Conference March 18, 2014. The League’s annual Community Excellence Award program showcases innovative solutions, programs or projects that have had a positive impact on their community, and can be replicated in other communities with similar challenges. The winner from each region will now go on to compete for the statewide CEA title during the League’s annual convention taking place Oct. 14-17 in Marquette. Every year, the League’s peer-nominated CEA competition recognizes transformational and problem-solving ideas to the many challenges facing communities. Increasingly, these local success stories are place-based projects and initiatives that are having a profound socioeconomic impact on communities in each of the state’s seven regions.

All of these CEA entries can also be described as placemaking success stories. Here is a closer look at the seven finalists shared at this year’s CEA presentations.

Region 1: Fenton Fire Hall:
The city of Fenton had a historic fire hall in the heart of its downtown that was no longer in use and had stood vacant for 10 years. The city of Fenton and Downtown Development Authority established a partnership with a nationally recognized restaurant group, called Union Joints, which focuses on converting historic buildings into eating establishments. The Fenton Fire Hall restaurant is now an extremely popular and successful destination point for people from miles around the Fenton area. Region 1 includes all communities in the southeastern portion of the state’s Lower Peninsula. View a full press release and photos.

Region 2: Metro Connection–Greater Lansing Shared Services Fire Initiative: Six Lansing-area jurisdictions participated in a shared public services study that has led to unprecedented trust building, costs savings and efficiencies between the fire departments from the cities of Lansing and East Lansing and townships of Meridian, Lansing, Delta and Delhi. Region 2 includes all communities in the south-central and southwestern portions of the Lower Peninsula. View a full press release and photos.

Region 3: Grandville’s downtown streetscape project: A vibrant downtown and a sense of place are crucial to a community’s identity and health. Grandville is one of the few Grand Rapids inner-ring suburbs that still has a traditional downtown, but its downtown was becoming more aged and losing many of its key attributes. A recent streetscape project created a more pedestrian-friendly downtown by improving parking, walkability and revitalizing the downtown core. Work included giving Chicago Drive, a former state trunkline, a road diet by narrowing it down from four to two lanes with a center turn lane, adding on-street parking, benches, banners, flower pots and brick pavers, as well as burying power lines under the street. Since the completion of the work, several new businesses have opened in the area, including Grandville’s first microbrewery, and new downtown community events have successfully started and drawn more people to the city. Region 3 includes all communities in the west-central area of the state’s Lower Peninsula. View a full press release and photos.

Region 4: Ithaca’s flower beautification community project: The city of Ithaca has a 12-inch strip of land lining its main street coming into the downtown area. Each year the community gets together to plant flowers along this area as a way to welcome visitors and residents. The project also brings the community together because everyone pitches in on the planting, including students from area schools, flower organizations, nonprofit service groups and many others. Region 4 includes all communities in the east-central part of the state’s Lower Peninsula, excluding the Thumb. View a full press release and photos.

Region 5: The city of Harbor Beach’s self-performed dredging project:  With water levels on the Great Lakes being so low last summer, many communities like Harbor Beach had to do emergency dredging in order to accommodate boats in its municipal marina. The city owns and operates a 114-slip marina on Lake Huron in the thumb of Michigan. Harbor Beach received grant funding assistance from the Department of Natural Resources-Waterways to do the dredging. The city administered the dredging project using its own equipment and personnel. Region 5 includes all communities in the Thumb. View a full press release and photos.

Region 6: Cadillac’s bicycle rental project called Bike Cadillac!: The city of Cadillac has put to use the many abandoned and unclaimed bicycles the police department has collected over the past several years. The city takes these bikes, has them refurbished if needed, places decals on them, provides locks, and then rents them for free to visitors and residents in the Cadillac area. People use the bikes on city trails, paths, and roads to travel around Lake Cadillac, visit Mitchell State Park and the Carl T. Johnson Hunting and Fishing Museum, and/or travel to downtown Cadillac. The exciting and innovative program started in 2013 through a partnership with Mitchell State Park, which is the location of the bike station. The program was a very popular and successful endeavor and plans are now underway to expand it. Region 6 includes all communities in the northern portion of the lower peninsula. View a full press release and photos.

Region 7: Gladstone After School Ski Hill Program: The Upper Peninsula city of Gladstone is known as the “year-round playground” which conveys the great quality of life and sense of place enjoyed by our residents and visitors. Up to 70 kids a day attend the city’s after-school ski hill program. Students from Gladstone and surrounding schools can ride a bus three days a week to the city’s ski hill where they receive a healthy snack and homework assistance. At 4 pm they can tube, snowboard or ski. Equipment is provided as needed and lessons provided by the hill’s student/city employees. This program addresses latch-key issues, educational support, healthy eating and exercise, personal growth in skills and self-confidence, as well as employment and job skills for high school students. It makes a life-long hobby affordable and is a collaboration with area schools. Region 7 includes all communities in the Upper Peninsula. The other communities that competed for the Region 7 CEA nomination were Ironwood and St. Ignace. View a full press release and photos.

The CEA program, affectionately called “The Race for the Cup,” was started by the League in 2007 to recognize innovative solutions taking place in Michigan’s cities, villages and urban townships.

View photos of the League’s 2014 Capital Conference, which focused on the League’s Partnership for Place policy agenda. View media coverage from the conference.

shutterstock-environment-green-initiatives-21c3-wind-turbine-energy-small-for-webThe 2014 Olympics may be over, but gold, silver and bronze awards are still being handed out to a select group of Michigan communities. A total of 33 Michigan local governments were recognized for environmental leadership at the Michigan Green Communities conference in Flint today (Tuesday, February 25, 2014). They are the second set of governments recognized under the recently expanded Michigan Green Communities Challenge (http://mml.org/green). The program helps local leaders measure their progress in implementing energy, economic development and environmental improvements.

The program is directly tied to the Michigan Municipal League’s ongoing effort around placemaking and creating desireable communities. To foster placemaking, the League has identified eight key assets that every community should strive to have. One of those assets is green initiatives and the Michigan Green Communities Challenge helps communities of all shapes and sizes achieve energy efficiency and environmental sustainability.

Awards were given at four levels of accomplishment:

  • Gold: Ann Arbor, Battle Creek, Charlevoix, Dearborn, Dexter, Farmington Hills, Grand Rapids, Meridian Township, Oakland County, Rogers City, Williamstown Township
  • Silver: Berkley, Birmingham, Delta Township, Lathrup Village, Monroe County, Novi, Quincy, Saline
  • Bronze: Delhi Township, East Jordan, Royal Oak, Sterling Heights, Troy, Warren
  • Member: Bangor Township, Clawson, Coldwater, Curtis Township, Fremont, Fruitport, Lansing, Livonia

Press releases about the honored communities will be posted here on the League’s newsroom page.

The Challenge is a new tool to help local leaders measure their progress in implementing energy, economic development and environmental improvements. It is supported by the Michigan Association of Counties, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Michigan Economic Development Corporation Energy Office, Michigan Municipal League, and Michigan Townships Association. It uses a rating system to recognize sustainability­ accomplishments and serves as a guide for the community leaders looking to learn from their peers. Participation is free and open to all local governments in Michigan as part of the statewide Michigan Green Communities network that aims to support local sustainability efforts.

The Challenge launched in 2009 and emphasized energy efficiency projects in an effort to help local governments prepare for and make the best use of federal Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) funds. In the past, graduate students from the University of Michigan worked with Challenge participants and the staff of a partner organization to update the program and reflect the evolving sustainability standards. The updated challenge reflects broader topics, such as green economic development, resource conservation and water quality, in addition to maintaining a strong energy component.

Matt Bach is director of media relations for the Michigan Municipal League. He can be reached at mbach@mml.org and (734) 669-6317.

A street artist performs in downtown Flint.

A street artist performs in downtown Flint.

There was an excellent editorial in Thursday’s (Feb. 13, 2014) Lansing State Journal about the value of Michigan’s cities (aka placemaking: placemaking.mml.org) to our state’s economic recovery. You can read the editorial here but the LSJ is paid-based website so if you don’t have an LSJ account let me summarize it for you.

The headline of the editorial, “Michigan needs its cities to thrive” is an amen-moment for the League. We’ve been saying this for year’s now and it’s nice to see more and more media understand. A recent survey by the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy also showed local municipal officials also increasingly embrace the placemaking concept.

Placemaking (placemaking.mml.org) essentially is creating places or communities where people want to work, live and raise families. Placemaking takes a variety of forms (check out placemaking examples on this League placemaking webpage.)

The editorial explains that for Michigan to thrive it must have vibrant cities and for too long now the state has taken revenue sharing that our communities were entitled to. It said Governor Snyder’s proposed 2014-15 budget would increase constitutional revenue sharing to communities by 3 percent and statutory revenue sharing by 15 percent. The League has stated this increase is appreciated but it doesn’t even scratch the surface toward to $6.2 billion the state has diverted away from communities in the last decade (read more about that in this new revenue sharing fact sheet put out by the League this week).

Furthermore, the increase in statutory revenue sharing being sought by the governor comes with strings. That money would be tied to performance requirements under the Governor’s Economic Vitality Incentive Program (EVIP). This EVIP program, in the League’s opinion, simply is not working and creates unnecessary inefficiencies for our communities.

The LSJ editorial says (and I love this part) “it’s high time the state committed more resources to making local communities strong. While all state residents live in Michigan, their quality of life is substantially defined by the quality of cities, villages, townships and counties in which they live. … Distressed areas don’t suffer alone. They spread economic unease to neighborhing communities and, in the case of Detroit and its bankruptcy, potentially to the entire state.”

It concludes with this one-two punch: “… It is essential that the state resume stronger support for local government. Details can and will be negotiated, but Snyder’s proposal should be the minimum that lawmakers consider as they continue reviewing the FY 2014-15 budget.”

Matt Bach is director of media relations for the Michigan Municipal League. He can be reached at mbach@mml.org and (734) 669-6317.