I got goose bumps watching giant paper mache creatures come to life, limited only by their creator’s imagination. It was the 8th annual Festifools, an event that takes place on the first Sunday of April to celebrate April Fool’s Day.  For one hour, these majestic puppets marched to the beat of music up and down Main Street, often stopping to interact with the throngs of spectators.  Although it is a well-orchestrated event requiring hundreds of hours of preparation, the beauty of it is that it has the look and feel of a random, spontaneous, “let’s get together” street party that brings out people of all ages.

Festifools photo 1Mark Tucker, a University of Michigan art teacher to mostly non-art majors, was searching for a novel way to bring his students together with community members to create something unique and exciting for his “Art in Public Spaces” course.  The result was the Street Theather Art (START) project.  Through his work with a neighborhood theater group, he got the idea to create a student puppet-making workshop assisted by community volunteers which would culminate at the semester’s end with a public parade in downtown Ann Arbor.  With the whole concept not really clear in his head, and not knowing if they could even really deliver, his encouraging talks with the business community and the city spurred him on – and Festifools was born.  Because of its enormous popularity, a second event was added:  FoolMoon, a nighttime luminary festival that takes place on the Friday night before the Festifools parade.

Tucker saw the importance of actively encouraging students to work with the community and used his students to bring the arts to the community in a fun, whimsical way creating an engaging and educational experience for all ages.

Festifools - clownsCultural Economic Development is one of the 8 assets that the League has identified to help create desirable and unique places to live.  It’s an event like Festifools that not only brings people together, but contributes to the long-term economic health of a community and region.

The League had the opportunity to go behind the scenes and visit the studio where the puppets are made as well as participate in one of the several workshops held downtown that invites the community to come in and make their own luminary.  We had a chance to hear all about this creative experience from Tucker himself and we will be telling his story in more detail in the future.  For now, check out the video and get a flavor of what these majestic puppets have to offer.  I promise that you’ll get goose bumps too!

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.

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.

Utica Mayor Jacqueline Noonan discusses the League's Partnership for Place initiative.

Utica Mayor Jacqueline Noonan discusses the League’s Partnership for Place initiative.

When it comes to the value of placemaking and how it ties to municipal financing in Michigan, Utica Mayor Jacqueline Noonan doesn’t mince words: “The state’s current system of funding our communities is broken and change is essential to returning Michigan to prosperity.”

I had the opportunity to talk with Noonan, the 2013-14 president of the Michigan Municipal League, prior to a recent League board meeting and she talked about her desire for changes to the state’s municipal finance system and why the concept of placemaking is so important to Michigan’s future. Learn more about the value of placemaking at placemaking.mml.org and view the League’s Partnership for Place placemaking plan here.

Her comments come on the heels of a recently released report/survey on placemaking by the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy. The survey shows that more local governments than ever before are utilizing placemaking as an economic development tool in their communities. The League has long promoted placemaking as an economic driver and Noonan was very encouraged by the survey results.

Q&A with Mayor Noonan, League board president:

Utica Mayor Jacqueline Noonan does a media interview with Rick Pluta of Michigan Public Radio.

Utica Mayor Jacqueline Noonan does a media interview with Rick Pluta of Michigan Public Radio.

Q: What is your reaction to the new UM study that shows more cities are using placemaking as an economic development strategy?
A: “I’m excited because in the long run it is an absolute verifiable fact that talent and companies tend to migrate to communities that offer high quality of life. Placemaking is a strategy to highlight a community’s assets. Those assets can make your community more attractive to high quality talent and companies.”

Q: What do you think these survey results could mean for Michigan?
A: “With the stance taken by federal government post 2008, the auto industry has come back like a lion. The service industry around the state is experiencing such an economic upturn and when you combine manufacturing and the service sector, Michigan is in the top quarter if not the top 20 states in recovery. The state government – Governor Snyder and legislators – need to realize that helping local government through placemaking will enhance our recovery exponentially.”

Q: Do you think there is a relation between turning Michigan around economically/adding jobs and placemaking?
A: “I do. One of the areas you would point to that is doing this well would be west Michigan, through their mass transit programs and just how they use the beauty of the area to their advantage, with their gorgeous coast line. They are a premiere example of how to do placemaking right. Traverse City is another one. County by county throughout our state I think we are on the cusp of a huge success story.”

Q: Do you think our state lawmakers see that relation between placemaking and Michigan’s economic recovery?
A: “No I do not. I’m afraid the business sector, state Legislature and the Governor have not identified with placemaking to the extent they need to. But we have a growing percentage of them that are beginning to see it so we must keep the dialogue going strongly.”

Michigan Municipal League President Jacqueline Noonan, Mayor of Utica.

Michigan Municipal League President Jacqueline Noonan, Mayor of Utica.

Q: How can we get the governor and lawmakers to understand the importance of placemaking?
A: “We have to share information like the UM study with them directly. We also need to make sure they get the league’s excellent printed materials, such as the book, The Economics of Place: The Value of Building Communities Around People and the MIPlace materials. To borrow from what the governor says, we need to have Relentless Positive Contact with state officials about the importance of placemaking so no matter what direction they turn they are going to see it.”

Read the placemaking UM report here. Read the UM press release. Read the League’s Placemaking blog post on the study.

View a recent Michigan Municipal League Review magazine article about Noonan and how her community is using placemaking as part of its rebirth.

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