Spoiler alert: If you like to be surprised when you pick up the League’s Review, maybe wait until you get the July issue to read this post—I’m going to be talking a bit about the projects from my article in that issue, because word count made me leave these notes out.

I recently sat down with the heads of two projects from the Public Spaces Community Places crowdgranting program; both projects adaptively reused vacant Ypsilanti properties as community spaces.  One, the Ypsilanti Farmers Marketplace, has made an old drive-through bank mini-branch and adjacent 1930s warehouse into an indoor/outdoor market, event space, retail garden supply store, and demonstration kitchen.  The other, Cultivate Café and Tap House, turned an unassuming auto repair garage into a community room.

In both cases, the “business”-like activities of the managing non-profit are a critical piece of the placemaking effort’s success, and good reminders that getting the physical design of the space right is not enough on its own.

Ypsiplanti offers an amazing array of garden tools, seeds, books, houseplants, compost, and similar products in a tiny footprint.

Ypsiplanti offers an amazing array of garden tools, seeds, books, houseplants, compost, and similar products in a tiny footprint.

The Marketplace is teeming with people on market days: over 300 people visited in the first hour of the opening Tuesday earlier this month.  But what happens the rest of the week? Many farmers market sites sit vacant and empty outside of market days.  To address this, Growing Hope has opened “Ypsiplanti”, a hole-in-the-wall garden supply inside the old bank building.  Not only does this fill a gap in downtown Ypsilanti, which previously lacked such a store, but it also draws some traffic to the site 6 days a week. The level of activity certainly doesn’t compare to market days, but having a staff member on the site provides “eyes on the street” and keeps the marketplace from feeling like dead space.

Cultivate uses its glossy coffeehouse appearance to bring people together.

Cultivate uses its glossy coffeehouse appearance to bring people together.

The founders of Cultivate, similarly, use the café’s coffee and beer to feed the nonprofit space’s function as a community gathering place, in terms of both revenue and people.  Beverage sales pay for the few paid staff and keeping the lights on, with additional proceeds and tips going towards the organization’s charitable work of fighting hunger. Running a coffee shop certainly doesn’t qualify as “easy”, but providing people a cup of coffee while they talk is a way to raise money in the process of the community building work, rather than having to constantly set aside that function in order to focus on organizing fundraiser events.

As well, coffeehouses and pubs have set the model for “third places” for centuries for good reason—they are places people go individually and have spontaneous interactions, rather than relying on organized events to get people together.  While I have attended specific, planned events at Cultivate, I’ve much more often gone there because, well, I wanted coffee, and wound up talking to someone I ran into. The first draft of my Review article was written there, which was perhaps a poor choice for productivity, but a good one for community: I was distracted repeatedly in talking to a neighbor, a city councilmember, a DDA board member, and a local historian who wanted to pick my brain about past property ownership on a particular street.

While the central focus of our placemaking work has been on the physical space—the piece cities tend to have the most direct control over—these examples highlight the importance of offering people everyday reasons to use the space. In both of these cases, the physical space and the activity generation were handled by the same organization, in conscious coordination. Cities may not be able to copy exactly these models in their own public space projects, but should actively look for partners who can provide reasons for people to use the space once it’s there.

There’s no question that the “buy local” movement has made great strides within the last decade, fostering a sense of corporate responsibility among well-known grocery chains, a spark of community-based ‘Choose Local’ campaigns, and a reinvention of the manner in which we use local resources.

lab (300x200)However, from the perspective of a millennial operating on a tight budget, buying local in my hometown of Ann Arbor doesn’t come cheap. It can mean shelling out more than $5 for every cup of coffee at Lab or at least $15 for every Zingerman’s experience. Which begs the question – is it actually worth it?

In a speech recently given as part of Zingerman’s ZingTrain speaker series, economist and author Michael Shuman argued affirmatively, discussing the several untold economic benefits of supporting community-based businesses.

Research has shown that regions with the highest concentration of local businesses also have higher per capita job growth and more profound income growth. According to Shuman, every time a consumer spends a dollar locally, 2 to 4 times more jobs, income, and taxes go back into the community than if that same dollar had been spent at a non-local business.

In many Michigan communities, these benefits are already transforming the ecosystem in which locally piloted enterprises operate and grow.

Who Creates Local Prosperity?

Despite overwhelming evidence in favor of community-based commerce as a means towards regional prosperity, we still see many examples of economic developers offering grants and tax incentives to encourage non-local businesses to take up residence in their areas. The argument for these actions is convincing at the surface level: in many cases, developers assume that these companies, which boast a record of success, will bring employment opportunities, investment, and talent to the places in which they locate.

However, according to Shuman this “mutually beneficial” arrangement actually does much more for the non-local business than for the locality it’s purporting to help. In many cases, this spectrum of incentives essentially allows non-local enterprises to transplant their current operation into a newer, cheaper place. Rarely does this equate to new and abundant employment opportunities for local residents; rather, those already working for the company tend to relocate right along with it.

This outside business then begins competing with smaller, community-based establishments. However, they do so at an advantage, operating with grants and tax breaks not offered to their smaller, locally-owned counterparts.

In shorter and blunter terms, economic developers have adopted a harmful practice of attracting and then providing non-local enterprises with the resources necessary to run their local equivalents into the ground. Considering the many benefits that local businesses provide to the community, this practice seems at best counterintuitive and at worst harmful to local economies.

The Alternative

michael shuman (163x244)Michael Shuman insists that there is a better way to create an innovative ecosystem for local prosperity. Even more compelling: economic developers are not the solution. In fact, they perpetuate a problem.

Instead, Shuman suggests that local entrepreneurs can build this environment themselves. He calls these local business owners ‘pollinators.’ Bees pollinate for the sake of their own survival, yet without realizing it their activity drives the growth and reproduction of other species. Similarly, driven individuals (while working towards their own success and profitability) can foster a collaborative ecosystem in which other growing organizations have the potential to succeed. Successful business owners identify areas of potential growth, mentor new entrepreneurs, work in symbiosis with other enterprises offering a complimentary service, make goods more widely available, and help reinvest in local commerce.

The Bottom Line

Shuman suggests that it’s time for economic developers to take a step back and question whether their efforts are doing more harm than good. Have continual agreements with non-local businesses actually paid off in the communities they intended to help? Or are these grants and tax incentives creating (as Shuman suggests) a welfare system for corporations incapable of standing on their own two feet?

One thing seems certain: rather than focus their attention on attracting outside firms, local and state governments would do well to shift focus instead to supporting local entrepreneurs, whose ideas and resources would truly give back to the community.

cantoros (300x199)It’s refreshing to understand that an economic argument for supporting community enterprise exists. And to answer my earlier question – yes, despite our constricted budgets, buying local is worth it. In condensed terms, choosing local today can create a job for you (or your neighbor, or your sibling, or your child) tomorrow. When we support our community-based businesses, we see direct material benefits.

We also, however, see immaterial benefits to buying local. It makes us happier and healthier, and it also helps us feel connected to and involved in the communities we call home. In many Michigan areas, local businesses are community anchors. Think Cops and Donuts in Clare, Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theater, Cantoro’s of Plymouth, and (of course) Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor. These places are thriving businesses, but they’re also destinations for visitors. Owners feel connected to the people that walk through their doors, and pride for the communities they serve.

Juxtapose this against a Wal-Mart in Oriental, North Carolina. Bloomberg writes:

“The Town’n Country grocery in Oriental, North Carolina, a local fixture for 44 years, closed its doors in October after a Wal-Mart store opened for business. Now, three months later — and less than two years after Wal-Mart arrived — the retail giant is pulling up stakes, leaving the community with no grocery store and no pharmacy.”

wal-mart (300x199)This is a tragedy, and it’s also what happens when we fail to appreciate and support the local businesses that support us.

Take a moment and think about the things that are special about your town, the places that set it apart from anywhere else in the state or nation. In Garden City, I grew up eating Italian food from Amantea’s and Villa Bakery, I spent hours and hours of time learning ballet at Robert Lee Dance Studio, and almost every formal dress for high school dances was acquired after trying on a million options at Eva’s Bridal. Small businesses, whether or not we realize it, are the fabric of our lives. They’re the places in which we work, socialize, and make memories.

So next time you’re questioning whether or not to choose local, keep in mind how much those local businesses are doing for your community, and maybe take pride in spending a extra few dollars. Not only because that money comes back to your city (2 to 4 times!), but because Michigan’s small businesses make this state a wonderful place in which to live, and we’re lucky to have them here.

Hazel Park 5 around table.For the past two years, several of us at the League have had the privilege of participating on the CNU24 Local Planning Committee with a passionate group of urbanists.  As the one clear voice for cities and villages of Michigan, the League is in a unique position to reach out across the state to our members to bring awareness to CNU and illustrate the common vision and goals both organizations share in building great communities.

With the annual CNU Congress fast approaching,  there have been several events leading up to the conference, including the Legacy Charrettes.  We made sure that staff attended the multi day workshops at its various stages, so that we could help support and create some buzz for these projects.  The first one I attended was the Hazel Park project.  Along with two of my colleagues, we came in on the third day of the “reveal” which followed two intensive days of public input and work.  My colleague, Matt Bach, attended the first day of this workshop, so check out his recap.

The anticipation of the crowd of local leaders, residents, and business owners was palpable.  Moule & Polyzoides, a firm of architects and urbanists out of Pasadena, California, along with Planners, Bob Gibbs, Peter Swift, and John Zanette, led this enthusiastic group during the three day workshop.

Hazel Park crowd around tableThe first day they shared a big vision of creating a walkable and connected downtown for Hazel Park.  The goal was to make people a priority over cars; leverage the existing buildings and open space, and enhance the quality of life.  Street calming, landscaping, and adding several gateways into the city would all play a role. Two days later, this collective vision came into focus as a plan was presented to make a place to create a pedestrian oasis and revitalize their downtown. This would be accomplished by creating three distinct districts of the downtown:  the Culinary District would be their town center, the Civic Center, where city hall is located, and the Arts District, that would include the conservation of buildings.  Although these seem like lofty goals, they are realistic ones.  Simple modest changes can be a good place to start and can begin to have a huge impact.

Hazel Park plan on tableJeff Campbell, Assistant City Manager and Planning and Economic Development Director of Hazel Park expressed his view of the process. “It has been an amazing experience working with CNU as planning and economic development coordinator and I have been humbled and stunned by the citizen participation and how much they care about Hazel Park.”

Will Herbig, CNU Program Director said, “This is just not about Hazel Park – it’s about the conversations, ideas, and a model for southeast Michigan.  I couldn’t be happier.”

Join us, along with over 1500 participants from around the world, in Detroit, June 8-11. There will be a feast of learning opportunities and experiences for anyone interested in cities and you will also have the opportunity to see the finished design product of all four of the charrettes!

Although there was lots of activity outside on a beautiful warm spring Sunday afternoon in Southwest Detroit, it was inside the Cristo Rey high school where some of the real excitement was taking place.

Vernor Crossing 1

Vernor Crossing is one of four Congress of New Urbanism (CNU) Legacy Charrettes – hands-on public design events – that were held in Detroit, Pontiac, and Hazel Park, last week. This work, called “Building affordable and market rate housing in Southwest without displacement,” is being done as a lead up to CNU24. My colleague, Rob Ferrari and I attended the last day of the Vernor Crossing workshop to see the culmination of two days of hard work that included significant public input from the neighborhood residents. This was led by Dhiru Thadani from Washington D.C. with support from NederveldZimmerman/Volk Associates and City Form Detroit. My colleague, Luke Forrest, attended the first day of the workshop discussion, so check out his blog, which set the stage.

Southwest Detroit is ripe for change. Home to a diverse and immigrant population, it is made up of artists, entrepreneurs and crafts people. Local leaders and residents were brought together to envision  a transformation of an area that would potentially become much more pedestrian friendly, provide a more diverse housing stock, enhance existing businesses to attract new businesses, and create more open green space for recreational activities. To achieve these goals, several tangible recommendations are being proposed.  Here are some of the ideas that are beginning to lay the groundwork:

  • Reroute truck traffic
  • Open up and repair Livernois and Military streets
  • Identify vacant sites that can be transformed into various activities
  • Renovate the Public Works building (which would act as a town center) to create an arts and culture center; put in 500 housing types (5 year plan – 100 per year) which would include apartments, single family home; create a playground and soccer field; civic space for recreational activities; farmer’s market
  • Provide a diversity of housing through rehabilitation and new – carriage houses, bungalows, single family, row houses, apartments, cottages
  • Provide free WiFi; encase antenna tower and use as a landmark.

These ideas and concepts will be shaped into a cohesive design plan and unveiled during the CNU in Detroit. Optimism filled the room for all the potential that hung in the air.  Of course, it will take a few years to accomplish many of these changes, but there are incremental steps that can be taken that will have huge impact. Participating in the workshop, Steve Maun, Principle and Founder of LeylandAlliance LLC, said that rerouting the trucks alone will already be a major improvement and smaller scale physical changes will begin to attract developers.

Be sure and check back in June as my colleagues and I continue to follow the progress of all four of the Legacy Charrettes.