The Michigan Main Street Center recently published Ten Years of Excellence: The Economic Impacts of Main Street in Michigan. With more than 45 communities participating in the program, benefits have spread across the state.

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Michigan Main Street participant Boyne City is able to draw large crowds to their downtown for special events.

The state-led program started in 2003 with the goal to help communities revitalize their historic downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts. Similar to MML’s placemaking strategy, the Main Street Program encourages communities to expand on their unique assets and fill gaps where necessary. This model is a community-driven Four-Point Approach® of placemaking that highlights design, economic restructuring, promotion, and organization.

Boyne City is a Michigan Main Street Master Level Community.

Boyne City is a Michigan Main Street Master Level Community.

According to the report, the Michigan Main Street Program has:

  • Boosted community investment: Over $200 million has been invested in Main Street buildings, infrastructure, and public spaces.
  • Improved business and expanded job opportunities: 250 new businesses have been established and more than 1,300 new jobs have been created in Main Street districts.
  • Increased tax revenue: Local property tax revenues in Main Street districts see an estimated $3 million more each year because of improvements to downtown buildings. The state has also seen an increase in sales tax from new businesses in Main Street districts by $3.1 million each year.
  • Leveraged community volunteers: The value of volunteer hours spent in Main Street districts equates to nearly $8 million.

Michigan Main Street City: Boyne City

Boyne City sidewalk improvements enhance the aesthetics of the community.

Boyne City sidewalk improvements enhance the aesthetics of the community.

Boyne City has already implemented Main Street initiatives and now serves as a mentor to other communities. As highlighted in an MML case study the Main Street Program helped Boyne City leaders:

  • Create successful downtown events, including a farmers market.
  • Invest more than $6 million in downtown infrastructure.
  • Found a local economic development team of community stakeholders.
  • Help property owners with facade renovations.
  • Attract new residents and businesses.
  • Partner with a private developer on a multimillion dollar mixed-use project.
  • And simply create a downtown residents and visitors could enjoy!

Learn about Boyne City’s Main Street improvements here.

Important initiatives like Michigan Main Street are strengthening communities and increasing resident quality of life. We’re glad to support and continue these sort of projects through placemaking, education, and our policy framework.

Michigan’s new crowdfunding law allows residents to make financial investments in their community through a unique and innovative platform. Known as the Michigan Invests Locally Exemption (MILE), the structure provides investors a return on their investment through an ownership stake or debt position. Any business can use the online funding platforms to raise money, and any Michigan resident can make investments.Crowdfund logo

Before MILE, almost all entrepreneurial investments in Michigan have revolved around venture capitalists and accredited investors (people who have a net worth of at least $1 million and an income of more than $200,000 – so only the top 3% of the population). Now, anyone who wants to support local business owners and entrepreneurs can have a financial impact on their communities. All of the risk of a traditional investment still applies, but with more people, literally, invested in a business, the more likely the business will have the support they need to succeed.

Michigan’s First Crowdfunded Business

tbc-inline6Tecumseh Brewing Company is the first Michigan business to be successfully funded through the new law. The two business partners received seed money from friends and family to get things going but needed to raise an additional $175,000 to open their doors. Because traditional financing is particularly challenging for new businesses to secure, they decided to give crowdfunding a try.

The owners got creative to spread the word about their new business and investment opportunity by inviting the community to a beer tasting event. In just a few weeks, Tecumseh Brewing Co. raised their goal of $175,000. With money secured and the community excited, the partners are preparing to open their doors in the coming months.

Crowdfunding Public Spaces

Patronicity is a crowdfunding platform, similar to Kickstarter or Indigogo, but Michigan-specific. Patronicity recently partnered with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) on a campaign to promote and fund public projects.

Midtown Detroit Inc's rendering of the Green Alley Project.

Midtown Detroit Inc’s rendering of the Green Alley Project.

MEDC will match funds raised on Patronicity, up to $100,000, for select public projects. Both municipalities and nonprofits can raise money to create parks, public art, trails, or anything else that activates a community space.

Midtown Detroit Inc., a community development nonprofit, is hoping to raise $50,000 to transform an alley on Second & Selden into an active public space with outdoor seating, sustainable landscaping, creative lighting, and welcoming architecture. With less just less than $30,000 to raise in 21 days (as of the morning of July 3), the campaign is off to a good start!

The opportunities are endless with Michigan’s new crowdfunding legislation. We’re confident the law will help the state attract and retain talent, promote entrepreneurship, and enhance personal connections to Michigan communities.


Additional Information & Supporting Research

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.

Strava's heat map of bike/walk activity in Midland shows the popularity of that city's recreational trails--but surprisingly little bike/walk access to the major employment center.

Strava’s heat map of bike/walk activity in Midland shows the popularity of that city’s recreational trails–but surprisingly little bike/walk access to the major employment center.

Fitness tracking app Strava recently began offering its data—millions of walking, jogging, and cycling trips around the world—to cities and transportation agencies. For a price, of course: this is a revenue stream for the app developers…so what’s in it for the public agencies? As Gizmodo explains, bike/walk traffic data is traditionally much harder for agencies to collect than traffic data, but, with apps like this, “we’re all walking sensors now:”

Strava’s first customer, Oregon’s Department of Transportation, paid $20,000 for data from nearly 20,000 cyclists in hopes that it might help them figure out how to handle the steadily increasing bike traffic in cities like Portland. “Right now, there’s no data. We don’t know where people ride bikes,” Jennifer Dill, a professor and urban planner at Portland State University, told The Wall Street Journal. “Just knowing where the cyclists are is a start.”

This type of data can support placemaking efforts, especially as we look to support walkability and offer residents a range of transportation options: knowing where people choose to walk, jog, and bike—and where they don’t—helps us diagnose our community’s streets and target improvements.

Know your data’s limits—and leverage them

This can’t be done without some caution, though. As many commenters on the Gizmodo piece point out, the Strava dataset includes two biases that we need to consider in our planning.

The first issue is a self-selection bias: since the data is collected by smartphone users using the app, it only measures the habits of people whose income, age, and comfort with technology lead them to seek out and use smartphone apps to track their travel. Also, as the app is targeted at “fitness” users, it will likely be skewed to those trips, and include a smaller sample of people who are walking or biking to work, school, shopping districts, or other destinations. Even those app users who are tracking their bicycling commute are likely to be biking by choice—rather than being forced to because they lack access to an automobile. The app data will be less useful in identifying the travel patterns and needs of low-income residents and others who walk and bike out of necessity.

The second concern is a confirmation bias: because of that skew in who the users are and why they are traveling, they are more likely to have the luxury of choosing routes that already work well for biking and walking. This data will point to heavy activity on the scenic rail trails and state park trail loops, while overlooking the people who brave dangerous freeway interchanges on foot to get to work, or the road that could deliver recreational cyclists into downtown, if only it had a bike lane.

Strava's walking heat map shows the already high-quality rail trail near EMU's campus, while completely overlooking the more hostile, but still heavily used, Huron Street / I-94 interchange.

Strava’s walking heat map shows the already high-quality rail trail near EMU’s campus, while completely overlooking the more hostile, but still heavily used, Huron Street / I-94 interchange.

Because of these, planners should therefore be double-checking the Strava data against conditions on the ground. While the data might point to highly-traveled routes that need some improvements, in many cases, the outcome should actually be to improve the biking and walking experience on routes that Strava users are NOT recording.

If on-site observations or neighborhood engagement show that certain streets are critical walking and biking routes for day-to-day essential travel, but the travelers using fitness apps are avoiding those routes, then planners should be asking why: what’s wrong with those routes that causes travelers with choices to avoid the, and how can they be made better for those travelers with no choice? Not only will this use of the data serve a broader segment of additional residents, it will also help extend the attraction of a community’s downtown districts and other major nodes by bridging current barriers.

Share and share alike: supporting virtuous cycles

In many cases, privately developed apps rely on the availability of public data to function, either directly or implicitly. Transit app Ototo, for example, wants to tell transit planners what people are searching for, so they know where people want to go, but it can only serve metro areas where the transit agencies have published open data sets. By providing ready access to public datasets, local communities (and state agencies) can support the private development of apps, which can then feed data back to the communities on how people are using the apps—and, by extension, how people are interacting with the places around them.

Several efforts try to help public bodies shorten this cycle even further: organizations like Code For America, or events like the National Day of Civic Hacking (coming up May 31-June 1!) bring motivated software developers together to design, prototype, and build new applications for public data. In order to have the greatest benefit for communities, though, these efforts need access to both data and the public sector staffers who know the subject matter.

As mobile apps continue to grow in popularity and capabilities, cities should continue to look for ways to leverage the data generated—and to support the process with data of their own. Even though the field of mobile apps is only a few years old, cities and states that have engaged effectively are already benefiting.