Watch the award-winning video.

The Michigan Municipal League’s animated Partnership for Place video shown at the start of 2014 Capital Conference received the highest award possible in the national 2014 Videographer Awards competition run by the Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals.

There were 1,500 entries from throughout the United States and the League’s video was among the top 12 percent to receive the highest honor – “award of excellence.” The League was the only award of excellence winner from Michigan. View the complete list of award of excellence winners here: https://enter.videoawards.com/winners/excellence/.

In addition to the recognition, the League will receive a movie-style clapboard as a trophy.

The League’s Partnership for Place: An Agenda for a Competitive 21st Century Michigan is a proactive policy agenda that proposes a commitment of action in partnership between the state and its municipalities. The goal of this effort is that these policies will facilitate Michigan’s economic growth and allow for the development of places to provide key services and amenities that contribute to a high quality of life.

The Partnership for Place focuses on a more regional approach to service delivery, which would change the way services are provided, how resources are dedicated, and how systems are supported. Approved by the Michigan Municipal League Board of Trustees in June of 2013, this policy agenda proposes actions that will re-establish a partnership for prosperity in four key areas: Funding for the future; Michigan in motion; Place for talent; and Strength in structure. Read more about the agenda here.

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

Last week the National League of Cities hosted their 2014 State League Staff Workshop in Portland, OR. Here, staff from state leagues around the country gathered to network, learn, and discuss emerging issues in the field.

Presenting on how leagues can support distressed communities with Rhode Island League Associate Director, Peder Schaefer

Presenting at the NLC Staff Workshop with Rhode Island League Associate Director, Peder Schaefer, on how municipal leagues can support distressed communities.

In a workshop co-led by Peder Schaefer of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, I had the opportunity to present MML’s work on supporting distressed communities. MML’s role promoting placemaking by highlighting case studies, enhancing crowdfunding, and developing a place-based policy platform are unique to leagues across the country. Workshop attendees were eager to hear about Detroit and the creative ways MML is supporting the state’s communities.

Portland, OR

Portland's Saturday Market on the riverfront

Portland’s Saturday Market on the riverfront

Hosting the NLC’s conference in Portland was a wonderful illustration of effective placemaking. The city has incredibly effective and low-cost public transportation, miles and miles of bike lanes, small and walkable city blocks, and neighborhoods full of life and character. Yes, the city’s slogan “Keep Portland Weird” was true to its name, but even the strangest people were kind, helpful, and excited to talk about their city.

Downtown Portland was full of activity with public plazas, food carts, multimodal transportation, and people doing things people do: talking, laughing, eating, soaking up the sun, shopping, and simply looking at other people.

Pedestrians are the priority in Portland's streets. Downtown intersections are marked with brick to notify drivers to slow down.

Pedestrians are the priority in Portland’s streets: Downtown intersections are marked with brick to notify drivers to slow down.

After the conference, I stayed an extra night in the Alberta District in north-east Portland. The people I stayed with had an extra bike for guests, so I was really able to get around like a Portlander! There were amazing local shops, a ton of places to eat, and parks full of activity.

I was floored at how friendly people were and how eager they were to help a tourist. People started real conversations while waiting in line, said hello on the street, and customer service staff took pride in their roles (and with a minimum wage of $9.10/hour and rising, there was plenty of reason to be genuine).

The city is scattered with food carts and there are block-long segments of permanent food vendors in cart-like structures.

The city is scattered with food carts and there are block-long segments of permanent food vendors in cart-like structures.

While wandering around the city, the Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community report kept popping into my head. The study found that aesthetics, openness and social offerings are what people loved most about where they live. Portland looks great, people felt open to diversity, and there were countless opportunities to connect with others on the street, at an event, or standing line at the food truck: Portland makes a great case study.

Although we have aspects of Portland’s magic in some Michigan communities, many have a long way to go. Not every city should be exactly like Portland, but our role at MML is to help communities expand on their own unique assets and become the best cities they can be.

Berkley Art Bash attendees take a break on patio furniture rented by the placemaking committee.

Berkley Art Bash attendees take a break on patio furniture rented by the placemaking committee. 

Kids share their ideas of what they would like to see in the space.

Kids share their ideas of what they would like to see in the space.

As part of the League’s placemaking work, we recently partnered with the city of Berkley and organized a group of residents, business owners, and public officials to brainstorm ways to create a central gathering space in the city’s downtown. Much like the problem the city of Farmington once faced, there isn’t a great downtown Berkley location for people to gather, enjoy take-out, run into neighbors, read a book, and host events. Seeing the space’s potential to build community, the city determined Twelve Mile and Robina may be a place to invest in.

Berkley officials were already planning on making improvements to the Robina and Twelve Mile intersection (the sidewalk is dangerously bumpy and there are some obvious signs of neglect) but wanted to test creative ideas before making any dramatic changes. Twelve Mile Road is populated with local businesses and restaurants and Robina has a block of wide sidewalks with cement planters and trees. The somewhat dated and neglected space is activated only a few times a year with a summer concert series and other small events.

How it worked

Residents and visitors play games and take a break at the Robina and Twelve Mile intersection.

Residents and visitors play games and take a break at the Robina and Twelve Mile intersection.

During an existing event, the Berkley Art Bash, the placemaking committee decorated the intersection with local art, colorful flags, a giant checker board, and moveable patio furniture and let residents do the rest! Kids drew with chalk, a yoga class practiced in the street, people rested on the patio furniture and cement planters, and residents shared their ideas of how they wanted the space to be used in the future.

A Berkley yoga studio brought a class to the space to practice outdoors.

A Berkley yoga studio brought a class to the space to practice outdoors.

Through 1-1 conversations and residents writing their ideas on a large paper posted on a building’s exterior wall, committee members came up with an array of ideas like:

  • Closing the road to make the space pedestrian-only public plaza
  • Hosting weekly outdoor summer movies
  • Making moveable patio furniture a permanent feature
  • Putting in a splash pad
  • Incorporating more plants and trees
  • Painting a mural on the large, brick wall
  • And so many more!!

Next Steps

The committee is currently recording all of the ideas, comments, and concerns residents shared about Robina and Twelve Mile and are putting together a report and presentation to share with the city. Councilmembers, Downtown Development Authority members, residents, and others have committed to schedule presentations to share the results with a larger audience and get the redesign going in the coming months.

MML will certainly stay involved and supportive of Berkley’s downtown placemaking process so I’ll be sure to report on the city’s progress. To get a project like this started in your community or for questions about Berkley’s process, feel free to contact me directly at scraft@mml.org.

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.