I have the privilege this week of attending the Hometown Summit, a new national conference focused on sharing lessons and best practices from small and mid-sized cities. The organizers describe it as a “convening and celebration of leaders in small and mid-sized cities who have spearheaded some of the nation’s most creative and successful initiatives for community problem-solving.” 

This is the first of what will hopefully be a series of quick-hit thoughts from some of the best conference content.

One of the morning sessions, with the provocative title “Does Your City Seduce Talent?”, featured entrepreneurs from four cities – Charlottesville, VA, Syracuse, NY, Durham, NC and Milwaukee, WI – testing different ways to attract and retain the creative community. I gleaned the following lessons that cities of any size can pursue:

  1. Speed up your decisionmaking & approval processes – All the panelists spoke to the need to cycle through ideas and try things quickly. They need a host city that can enable that speed.
  2. Make people feel welcome – Customer service and a welcoming vibe, both when dealing with visitors and potential non-profit/business startups, are crucial to attracting and keeping people who might be the future changemakers.
  3. Celebrate and cultivate your grit – None of the entrepreneurs were interested in moving to a city that had it all, rather they wanted to be somewhere that had gaps and was interested in taking them on.
  4. Don’t get hung up on buzzwords – None of the leaders in the room started out to be “talent attraction initiatives” or “civic entrepreneurs.” Rather, they started a project because they loved a place and wanted to make it better. So go find those people and the rest will take care of itself.

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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Vassar is a unique place. The small city, with a population less than 2,700 people, had six new businesses open in just over a year. The one-block downtown now offers a variety of experiences with a historic movie theatre, coffee shop, boutique, pet groomer, ice cream shop, gym, specialty bakery, and a variety of bars and restaurants. People in Vassar are friendly, community-minded, and truly excited about the city’s future.

In late 2015, the Vassar City Council hired a new city manager, Brian Chapman. He felt the community’s excitement and knew he had to support existing businesses, get the new ones in smoothly, and make sure the downtown would thrive. To Chapman, that meant transforming Vassar from a place people drive through, to a place people drive to. So he decided to focus on placemaking.

The site plan in it's current form is on the left, and the Vassar Vision concept plan is on the right.

The site plan in it’s current form is on the left, and the Vassar Vision concept plan is on the right.

Download the full report here

Download the full report here

After leading the PlacePOP project over the past many months, Vassar City Council unanimously approved to support the Vassar Vision public space concept plan earlier this week. We’re very proud of the work we’ve done in Vassar and look forward to following the public space enhancements throughout implementation.

The Vassar Vision 2016 PlacePOP Concept Plan report shares detail on the project site, methodology, concept plan, implementation recommendations, and community impact. We also want to share lessons we learned while working in Vassar, which we hope can help other local leaders implement successful placemaking projects in the future.

Lessons Learned

  1. Use a steering committee and give them power – Vassar Vision was initiated by the City, but the majority of creativity, outreach, and heavy lifting came from the steering committee. These volunteers were trusted advisors and decision-makers, and they worked hard because they felt ownership and pride in the work. Vassar Vision is their project.
  2. Local business owners sampling their food during the Taste & Talk.

    Local business owners sampling their food during the Taste & Talk.

    Get business owners to the table right away – Business owners have an incredible stake in the success of Vassar’s downtown. The steering committee identified right away that improvements to the project site needed to reflect nearby business owners’ needs and hopes, as well as the needs of residents and visitors. The committee kicked off the project with a successful and unique visioning event, the Taste & Talk. Here, incoming and existing business owners hosted tables with samples or products displays. At each table, we had a map of the project site and asked people to write down ideas of what could-be in the space. More than 200 people attended the event, which had the feel of a festival, rather than a city meeting. The Taste & Talk was a perfect way to invite business owners to the table and illustrate the value the community places on supporting these important community institutions.pullquote

  3. Use an outside facilitator to educate and manage the steering committee – Sometimes what people think they want and what placemaking and economic research suggests doesn’t always align. Bringing in an outside facilitator from the League helped bring an “expert” to the table to share research, case studies, and trends, to help residents and business owners see what could-be in Vassar. Most importantly, the steering committee needed to be well managed and facilitated, something city staff or volunteers don’t always have time to do. The support the League offered allowed the project to move forward smoothly and effectively.
  4. Create a brand and marketing campaign – After one of the first steering committee meetings, the group selected the name, logo, and color scheme for Vassar Vision. They wanted it to be identifiable and to stick so they could use the brand throughout implementation phases. It’s quick, easy to remember, and meaningful to the community.
  5. Plan events you actually want to attend – Visioning events and community meetings are rarely thrilling, unique events. It was important to the steering committee to host fun, creative, social, and engaging “meetings” that people would be excited to attend after work or on a Saturday afternoon, which they so successfully did through their public engagement events like the Taste & Talk.
  6. Engage like crazy and apply the feedback to the design renderings – The Vassar Vision project spanned for eight months and included about three idea generation events and at least six formal feedback opportunities. After each, the design team applied what they heard into the next version of the design and sent it back for further review. It takes time and patience, but fosters the best results.

    Collecting feedback during Vassar's annual RiverFest.

    Collecting feedback during Vassar’s annual RiverFest.

  7. Collect feedback in different ways The steering committee collected ideas and feedback by hosting a stand-alone public event, participating in an existing weekend festival, hosting meetings, sharing online surveys, having informal discussions, posting renderings in businesses, and presenting at formal council meetings. This ensured that a wide range of residents knew about the project and were able to participate in way that best suited them.
  8. Use existing community events as a way do more engagement – The steering committee took advantage of the annual RiverFest as a way to reach a wider audience. RiverFest already attracted hundreds of people to the project site so the steering committee set up boards and had volunteers grab passersby to share information and collect feedback.
  9. Collecting concept plan feedback before a City Council meeting.

    Collecting concept plan feedback before a City Council meeting.

    Test ideas through pop-ups – At RiverFest, the steering committee tested some of the ideas people came up with in past events and showed what could-be through temporary improvements to the space. They put out lawn furniture, games, and art to help people understand how much nicer the space could be with just a little effort.

  10. Have fun It’s clear many steering committee members enjoyed the work they were doing. They were proud of the project and had fun doing it. If people enjoy the work they’re doing, they’ll often work harder, longer, and create a better product. Similarly, keeping Vassar Vision on a clear timeline helped people realize the end was near. Working on forever-committees can allow people to lose momentum and focus. Make sure to create benchmarks, celebrate successes, keep it social, and don’t make it too much work for just one or two people.

 

 

 

mlppOn October 10, the Michigan League for Public Policy hosted a half-day forum, Race, Poverty & Policy: Creating an Equitable Michigan. We were blown away by many of the speakers and resources so we wanted to share a few with our members:

  • What is racial justice? – Keynote speaker and Race Forward President and Executive Director Rinku Sen defines racial justice as the “systematic fair treatment of people of all races that results in equitable opportunities and outcomes for everyone.” She also gave some great pointers on how to talk about race by shifting the focus from an individual’s prejudice or intentions to the bigger question of what’s causing inequality and how are people impacted? Learn more from her presentation.
  • What’s the government’s role in achieving race & equity? – MLPP hosted an entire breakout session on this question and there’s still way more to talk about. The entire presentation was impactful, but we were most excited to share the work Ottawa County Administrator Al Vanderberg is doing in his community with Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance and the Government Alliance on Race & Equity. LEDA is leading an organizational system review of equity in Ottawa County’s HR policies and practices, as well as getting all 900 employees trained in cultural intelligence. View the session’s Powerpoint slides here and see Vanderberg’s portion towards the end.
  • Racial Equity Impact Assessment – Sen shared this important equity tool communities across the country are using to evaluate how government decisions and actions will impact racial and ethnic groups. For example, the Minnesota School Board requires an equity impact assessment to be performed before every policy and program is implemented. Similarly, the Oregon State Senate passed legislation in 2013 requiring the Criminal Justice Commission to issue a racial impact assessment when requested by a state legislator.

There’s so much more to say, and equity and inclusion is an area in which we should all be focusing our attention. Here at the League, we plan on bringing you more tools, speakers, discussion groups, and resources on this topic in the coming months and at future events. For now, check out our Review issue on equity from late 2015. Please also let us know what tools you’re looking for, topics you want help exploring, or discussions you want to host in your community. Feel free to comment below or email me directly at scraft@mml.org.