Earlier this week, the city of Ypsilanti released an RFQ seeking developers for one of the sites they identified as a priority through the Redevelopment Ready Communities process. The League created the RFQ document with the support of Beckett & Raeder, Inc., as part of a project, funded by MSHDA through the MML Foundation, to advance placemaking planning into implementation.

Taking plans off the shelf

The first of our development RFQ pilots, recently sent out by the city of Ypsilanti.

The first of our development RFQ pilots, recently sent out by the city of Ypsilanti.

“Planners can make all the plans they want, but it takes developers to execute them.”

This quote on the relationship of city planners to developers in creating communities has stuck with me as much as anything else from planning school. That’s why I’m enthusiastic about these RFQs.

When a community undertakes a PlacePlan, or prepares a residential target market analysis, or undertakes any kind of planning process, they are defining their desired outcomes; a community that goes through RRC then lays the groundwork to ensure they’re not hindering their desired outcomes.

To accelerate the actual completion of these plans, though, the community needs to clearly and actively communicate their expected outcomes, and the work they’ve done. This is the role our RFQs can play.

Traditional stumbling blocks

This project began from a less specific desire to accelerate developments that contribute to a local sense of place, and we arrived at supporting locals with RFQs after conversations with some of our PlacePlans alums, developer partners, and MSHDA and MEDC staff about why things hadn’t worked in the past. Some themes included,

  • Developers often aren’t familiar with the work communities have done—traditional real estate listings don’t elevate that groundwork or communicate the vision.
  • Communities sometimes default to their known procurement processes when trying to communicate with developers, burying the lede under reams of legal requirements and disclosure documents. “Every page has to keep you reading, and if you see it’s 100 pages, you’re not even going to pick it up,” was feedback we got from a broker’s perspective.
  • Local staff don’t have good channels for getting word out about their development priorities: often, they only know a small pool of local builders (or may even lack that!) and don’t know where to find others. “We created an RFQ and put it on our website and sent a press release to the local paper—we don’t know if anybody saw it.” said one city.
  • Similarly, smaller developers may only know the opportunities in their own backyards, and not those just a few communities down the road; larger developers may only have a limited set of “high-profile” places on their radar.

Improving the outreach

The approach we’re taking has two parts, to help address these gaps.

First, we identified a few communities that have been through the Redevelopment Ready certification process, that had identified priority sites in downtown or adjacent neighborhood settings, had done good place-based planning (through PlacePlans or otherwise), had a target market analysis to demonstrate opportunity, and, importantly, had staff capacity to engage.

We are working with those communities to digest the work they’ve already done and tease out the important bits that relate to the target site. We’ve engaged Beckett & Raeder to both prepare concept site plans that provide visual cues of what the community is looking for, and to prepare site-specific fiscal analyses that test those visions against market data—can the community reasonably expect their vision to be buildable as-is, or should they expect a financial gap that will need incentives? And we’re packaging that work into an attractive RFQ document that (hopefully) grabs interest.

BRI prepared three concept site plans for the site, which we vetted with staff and the appointed bodies (Planning Commission and Historic District Commission) that will need to approve any development. The concepts are provided in the RFQ as examples of the city's desired development, but kept general enough to allow the developer creativity.

BRI prepared three concept site plans for the site, which we vetted with staff and the appointed bodies (Planning Commission and Historic District Commission) that will need to approve any development. The concepts are provided in the RFQ as examples of the city’s desired development, but kept general enough to allow the developer creativity.

Second, we’re working on the pipeline issue with support from a number of partners. Both the Michigan chapter of Urban Land Institute and the Home Builders Association of Michigan are promoting these RFQs to their membership, and we’ve also compiled our own contact list of firms active in placemaking-friendly development around the state—over 100 so far, and we’ll continue to expand that. Looking past these initial projects, MEDC has identified a need to expand the developer community active in any given region, through both networking and training, and we’re working with them to help target that need.

As we start to get feedback, we expect we might need to refine either what goes into the RFQ documents, or our approach to targeting developers. Our goal is to figure out a few things that work, and provide some guidance to all of our members about how they can take advantage of it to see their own placemaking goals take shape.  Stay tuned!

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.

Eastern Michigan University represents the largest employer in Ypsilanti, Michigan. However, because Ypsilanti has not been among the most appealing places to buy a home in Washtenaw County, several of the university’s employees live outside of the community. Recognizing this conflict, Eastern Michigan University and Washtenaw County came up with an implementation strategy that will help stabilize the community, address blight, decrease travel time to work, and promote local shopping and walkability. In addition to promoting walkability, reducing travel time to work may help relieve the overwhelming parking problem on campus. The LiveYpsi home-buyer program was introduced in 2012 to provide Eastern Michigan employees with an incentive to buy their homes in Ypsilanti.

What is it?

Modeled after LiveMidtown in Detroit, the LiveYpsi home-buyer program offers all full-time Eastern Michigan University employees a forgivable loan of $5,000 or $10,000 that will assist with purchase or home renovations, presuming that the newly purchased home will serve as their primary residence. The loan amount is determined based on the purchase location of the home; homes purchased in neighborhoods with less stability receive larger loans to incentivize investment in challenged neighborhoods and avoid a clustering of purchases that neglect these areas.


Why is this relevant?

The LiveYpsi program is an attempt to eliminate blight and revitalize neglected communities. Tying the loan amount to purchase location provides a greater incentive for homebuyers to invest in neighborhoods they may not have initially considered. Avoiding a concentration of homebuying within the same general areas allows for a more equitable distribution of economic development. This facilitates a more widespread blight elimination process, creating a more desirable community and sense of place for current and prospective residents of Ypsilanti.

Who’s involved?

After receiving a generous, one-time donation of $30,000 from the DTE Foundation to get the program up and running in 2012, LiveYpsi has since been equally funded by Eastern Michigan University and Washtenaw County.

Eastern Michigan University Assistant Professor stands with her partner in front of the house they recently purchased in Ypsilanti through th LiveYpsi Program Photo by Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.com

Eastern Michigan University Assistant Professor stands with her partner in front of the house they recently purchased in Ypsilanti through the LiveYpsi Program. Photo by Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.com

Program Success

The program has proven to be a big success since its 2012 launch, and it is anticipated that it will continue for years to come. The program is being utilized, there is high demand, residents are doing more local shopping and eating, and neighborhood quality has been improving. Roughly 40 homes have been purchased through the program thus far. LiveYpsi has the power to yield positive economic impacts for the city as it provides residents with a sense of place while also promoting the circulation of money within the community.


Many of our communities are identified by what they make—my hometown of Chelsea is instantly identifiable as the home of Jiffy Mix—but for too many, that identity is past tense: the plant closed, and they don’t make that anymore. The skills and passion for making something remain, though, and can be tapped to grow both good jobs and good places through a focus on many small businesses to replace the few big ones.

ReCast City’s Ilana Preuss has worked with communities around the country to understand small-scale manufacturing sectors. This week, the I-69 Thumb Region hosted a workshop with Ilana to look at how we can cultivate these businesses locally.


When the wind is right, I can smell this small manufacturer's roaster from my house--free advertising! (Cross Street Coffee in Ypsilanti)

When the wind is right, I can smell this small manufacturer’s roaster from my house–free advertising! (Cross Street Coffee in Ypsilanti)

Preuss defines a “small-scale manufacturer” as any business that makes something physical that can be packaged and sold, with between one and twenty employees. This can be anything from microbreweries to jewelry makers to small tool-and-die shops.

Why small-scale manufacturing?

The benefit of “small” is that the owner tends to live where their business is (or, in some cases, the business is in their home), so is more rooted in the community than a branch of a large national employer—and, if they do pick up stakes and leave, the blow to the community is limited.

The benefits of “manufacturing” are several. They hire locally, and the jobs grown this way tend to pay significantly better than the service sector. They bring money into the community when they become large enough to distribute, whether through traditional channels or online direct sales. They often source raw materials locally (especially in food products), supporting suppliers in the community.

As part of a placemaking strategy, these businesses can utilize spaces that would require too much buildout for traditional retail, filling in gaps in a small downtown; they don’t rely on foot traffic for their primary business, but they can create it, helping to support retailers and cafés around them. And, their products are often unique, helping to build recognition for the entire community.

Pollinating the small production sector

At the League’s Convention this fall, keynote Michael Shuman urged the adoption of a “pollinator” approach to local economic development: supporting small business growth by making connections between people and resources within the community.

Preuss’ session in Lapeer was a how-to on this theme, walking participants through the steps to identify and grow this sector in their own town. These include:

  • Build from local skills, resources, and history—cultivate the seeds of small-scale production that are already in place, rather than trying to force new ones from zero
  • Make connections between existing businesses—introduce the hot sauce maker who needs a commercial kitchen to the breakfast and lunch café in town whose kitchen is idle in the evenings.
  • Code for small-scale manufacturing in your zoning and building codes—or at least make sure your codes don’t block this activity. (ReCast City’s blog includes links to sample ordinance language from Omaha and Nashville.)
  • Provide financing and underwriting—this will often be through local actors willing to put a stake in the community. Local banks, individual investors, or investment crowdfunding through MILE are likely targets.

Preuss spent the day after this regional session working with the city of Vassar to apply this process to their local opportunities. We look forward to seeing what grows as a result, and hopefully in seeing more great examples across Michigan!

For a taste of Preuss work, check out this video of her presentation in Grants Pass, OR:

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