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.

liveypsimap

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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Center for Automotive Research recently presented their draft findings on what connected and autonomous vehicles mean for our communities, as part of the November Stakeholder Summit for Prosperity Region 9 (the “Greater Ann Arbor Region”).  The research team’s work has largely been guided by the discussion at the League’s September Convention on Mackinac, where we used a breakout session to hear from members about the concerns they had in thinking about how to adapt to self-driving cars. A final report is expected in January, and will be the topic of a session at our 2017 Capitol Conference.

“Nobody wants to be Betamax”

Of course, many of these findings will still be hypotheticals—what CAVs could mean—since we’re still very early in the development and adoption curve. As the CAR team noted, truly automated driving is still not available on the market, even in limited and access-controlled conditions like freeway driving, let alone in wide enough use to understand people’s reactions to it.

Current CAV technology is at "level 2", supporting human driving. Actual automated driving is anticipatedin the next 5 years, but is not on-road yet.

Current CAV technology is at “level 2”, supporting human driving. Actual automated driving is anticipatedin the next 5 years, but is not on-road yet.

The most ambitious promises from companies like Tesla suggest options may arrive in the next few years, but widespread use is likely years beyond that: CAR’s Eric Dennis noted that automotive technology typically takes up to 30 years to reach 90% saturation of the on-road fleet of vehicles. And, as one participant noted during discussion, “nobody wants to be the Betamax,” the road agency who invests heavily in the wrong direction by guessing too early what needs to be done.

For example, in September the question came up, will US DOT or MDOT be offering funding to pay for all the new striping needed on streets for automated driving to work?  CAR’s Dennis noted that striping is “beneficial, but not necessary” for current approaches to automated vehicles, and that AASHTO and SAE are working on guidelines for CAV-oriented lane markings—cities and other road agencies should probably not rush out to preemptively stripe every local street in advance of such guidance.

But nor should we be passive observers

A wait-and-see approach to developing technology has its limits, though. Letting driverless tech alone choose the pace and direction of change, and make demands on our communities, will not yield the best results.  Instead, we should be thinking ahead about how to incorporate the opportunities this tech could offer: planning, not reacting.

Is this the entrance to a great downtown, or a grand prix starting line?

We’ve been down the road of letting mobility tech call the shots before, by letting cars drive development patterns for the past half-century.  We’ve built bypasses around our towns in the name of traffic flow, and watched our Main Streets dry up for lack of customers when everybody drove around town instead.  We’ve turned neighborhood streets into pairs of one-way multi-lane drag strips, making it potentially fatal to walk across the street to visit your neighbor. We continue to tear down historic buildings in the name of having “enough” free parking, punching holes in our communities. Sure, all of this means that we can get places 30 seconds faster, but only by making huge steps backwards away from creating great places.

Planning for CAVs, rather than letting them plan for us

As our cars become self-driving, we should make sure that this change works for our communities, rather than making our communities work for autonomous driving technology—we need to plan intentionally to utilize these new technologies for our benefit, rather than simply wait and see what changes the technology wants us to acquiesce to.

Dr. Lisa Schweitzer captures this in Choice and Speculation an article in the latest issue of Cityscape:

“According to most speculation, driverless technologies will “transform” things. Technology is always the actor, like some unalterable force that sets the terms by which cities and human life will unfold. [However,] Individuals, governments, and businesses have choices about how they create, sell, and use technology…We have choices about how we distribute the benefits and burdens wrought by driverless vehicle technology. Those social, economic, and political choices can influence human life in cities just as much as, if not more than, the technology changes, and those choices will shape the technology as much as the technology will inform and influence choice.”

On this note, the work we’ve been doing with CAR and PSC helps to capture our local policymakers’ concerns about driverless tech, and to compile what’s known about the state and trajectory of that tech, and we look forward to presenting those findings.

Building on this foundation, though, we’ve got plenty of work left to do in figuring out those social, economic, and political choices ahead of us. This technology will offer monumental changes in how people might live our lives, and we have to recognize the limits of policy in societal change–but that limit is not 0.

I’ll be writing more on this in future posts, but welcome your thoughts in the meantime on how we accomplish this, whether in person, via email at rmurphy@mml.org or on Twitter @murphmonkey.