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A formerly vacant downtown storefront is full of activity during PlacePOP in Allegan.

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Read the full report here.

Pop-up retail is a fun and creative way to activate and promote underutilized storefronts. In December 2015, we had the opportunity to do a pop-up retail PlacePOP project with Allegan leaders to create vibrancy, boost foot-traffic, and encourage economic growth in the city’s downtown. Through the work of the Allegan city manager, city staff, elected officials, and a strong group of community and business leaders, Allegan built off an existing downtown celebration and shopping experience, Festive Fridays, to host four pop-up retail spaces through the month of December.

Allegan is a city of about 5,000 people and is no stranger to placemaking. As a 2013 recipient of the League’s PlacePlan grant, the community has a strong relationship with the League and values place-based improvements. Through their PlacePOP experience, communities across the state can understand the impact of pop-up retail and learn important lessons from their experience.

Accomplishments

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Festive Friday visitors purchase goods from PlacePOP vendors in a formerly vacant downtown storefront.

Allegan PlacePOP clearly demonstrates the power of placemaking. Pop-up retail was an opportunity to enhance an already successful event by bringing new energy and excitement to the downtown. After December’s events, community leaders most involved in planning the pop-ups reconvened for a debrief meeting in January 2016. Here, and through one-on-one interviews with key individuals, the stakeholder group discussed the project’s short- and long-term impacts. Stakeholders agreed that they clearly met the expectations identified through the project’s vision and goals, and they identified a number of additional accomplishments:

  • Building owners showcased available storefronts to hundreds of prospective tenants and buyers;
  • Vendors and entrepreneurs tested products and business strategy, built clients, and met like-minded entrepreneurs working towards similar goals;
  • Building owners were able to show their investment and passion for the community while residents had a unique opportunity to get involved in a common effort.

More than anything, Allegan PlacePOP was a clear illustration to the community, visitors, and the state that the city is innovative, collaborative, and focused on place. Many small- and mid-sized communities would never consider implementing a pop-up retail project because they believe pop-ups can only be successful in larger municipalities; clearly that is not the case. This project displays Allegan’s unique focus on placemaking and willingness to creatively collaborate with residents and business owners to achieve a common goal. Shining light on initiatives like PlacePOP can help attract talent and businesses that will contribute to the city’s economic success.

Lessons Learned

Pop-up retail projects can happen anywhere. With Allegan leading the way, other communities can learn from their experiences implement similar projects in their city centers.

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    Festive Friday visitors write what they would love to see in downtown Allegan.

    It takes city leadership to get the project started, but it takes community ownership to get the project completed. Allegan’s city manager is a strong advocate for place and was able to rally the community around a place-focused project. The manager initiated preliminary discussions with the League and acted as host to get the right people in the room as he organized the first community meeting. This is a strong leadership skill, but the more challenging skill was illustrated as he quickly stepped aside to let residents take ownership of the project.

  • Use an external, neutral facilitator to inspire, rally, and bridge new relationships. The project was able to avoid political turbulence with the League, rather than the city, as project manager. The League’s knowledge on placemaking and illustration of examples from across Michigan served as a way to educate and inspire Allegan leaders that was slightly different than the internal perspectives residents hear more frequently at the local level.
  • Agree upon clearly defined project goals and objectives at the beginning of the process. At the very first meeting, the group discussed and agreed on the project’s vision and goals and took on tasks as soon as they left the room. With regular communication and check-ins, leaders were able to carry out responsibilities, while having enough ownership to get creative and take the lead on tasks that most interested them. This got everyone moving in a unified direction and set the tone for what it would take to implement a successful project.
  • Start with the right location and event. To succeed in pop-up retail, there has to be enough foot traffic that make it worthwhile for vendors and building owners. With “shop local” initiatives already in the forefront during the holiday season, Festive Friday proved to be a successful event to build on. Similarly, the location has an important role in the project’s success. Downtown Allegan is walkable, aesthetically pleasing, and safe so people were willing to walk from store to store. A more sprawling, car-focused part of town would likely be less impactful for multiple pop-up vendors and building owners.
  • Have fun. It’s clear that people in Allegan are driven to do what they enjoy; spending time with their neighbors, being creative, and supporting the community they love. This experience is what encouraged the community to step up and take the lead.

Read the full report on Allegan’s PlacePOP here and contact scraft@mml.org for more information about pop-up retail or bringing PlacePOP to your community.

Last week saw Lansing take up bills for a “Historic District Modernization Act”, as well as CityLab weigh in on historic districts’ role in driving up housing prices and limiting affordability. In this context, we can revisit the role of local historic districts in placemaking.  (Spoiler: they’re an important tool!)

Since about 1970, when the Federal and state historic preservation statutes were enacted, 78 cities around Michigan have created districts to support their historic neighborhoods. These efforts provided property owners in those areas a stable and predictable context for investment, often allowing blighted or long-neglected areas to become, over time, some of our communities’ most sought-after neighborhoods. The combination of expertise and oversight provided by Historic District Commissions and staff, as well as Federal tax credits (and state credits, until recently), laid the foundations for these efforts.

Grand Rapids' Cherry Hill area demonstrates how historic districts support the ongoing work of neighborhood reinvestment.

Grand Rapids’ Cherry Hill area demonstrates how historic districts support the ongoing work of neighborhood reinvestment. (Photo courtesy East Hills Council of Neighbors)

I’ve previously written on Grand Rapids’ Heritage Hill and East Hills neighborhoods, which offer great examples of how historic districts support placemaking.  In 1992, residents of the Cherry Hill area of the east hills began the process of forming a district as part of their fight against blight, crime, and absentee property owners. A walk through the neighborhood today, just over two decades later, shows how the district has contributed to creating a great neighborhood that anchors the Wealthy Street and Cherry Street commercial districts. While work definitely remains to be done, many of the homes have been brought back from the brink of destruction by fire or neglect, creating the physical fabric that supports close relationships between neighbors.

The significance is not just aesthetic, but economic. During the real estate roller coaster of the last 10 years, Zillow reports this neighborhood’s average home value has increased by 25%, while the average home value in Grand Rapids as a whole remains 7% below 2006 levels. In the Fairmount Square portion of the East Hills—where another historic district was established in 1999, following Cherry Hill’s example—the economics were strong enough to support the construction of 35 condo townhomes during the middle of the recession, in coordination with the rehabilitation of the adjacent DA Blodgett Home for Children. The success of these neighborhoods for both residents and businesses show how historic districts support economic development efforts—in buildings both new and old.

New townhomes in Grand Rapids' Fairmount Square historic district show how new and historic construction can fit side by side.

New townhomes in Grand Rapids’ Fairmount Square historic district show how new and historic construction can fit side by side.

The Grand Rapids examples also show the weakness in CityLab’s critique.  While that piece targets local historic districts as tools to exclude lower-income residents—and uses an image from the Heritage Hill district to illustrate “pretty house” preservation—that neighborhood hosts Grand Rapids’ densest and most diverse set of housing options.  The home pictured sits on a block whose housing ranges from beautiful historic mansions to modest homes on postage stamp lots, alongside a mix of duplexes, townhomes, carriage barn apartments, and 8 story apartment buildings: hardly the exclusive enclave of single-family homes the author describes.

In this case, as in many of our cities, historic districts include and protect housing in a broad range of styles and price points. And, as the Fairmount Square development shows, can incorporate new development as well. While local districts can be used to reinforce exclusive zoning, they don’t necessarily do so, nor are they as much of a factor as single-family zoning standards, minimum lot sizes, or parking requirements. And to the CityLab concern about historic districts boosting property values, well, that was the hope of the Cherry Hill residents trying to build a neighborhood—bringing property values from the rock bottom of abandonment back up to something near the city and statewide averages.

Older neighborhoods often mix retail storefronts into residential areas, offering the walkable amenities residents want.

Older neighborhoods often mix retail storefronts into residential areas, offering the walkable amenities residents want.

In many cases, our historic districts are pre-war neighborhoods that look a lot like the types of areas that we’ve talked about in our strategic placemaking efforts: small commercial areas with apartments (or the possibility of them) above business uses that front on the sidewalk, and neighborhoods of homes, apartment houses, and small apartment buildings adjacent.  Many of the buzzwords we use in our placemaking work—“compact, walkable mixed-use districts with high connectivity and missing middle housing options” (huh?)—are just a way of saying, “let’s build great new neighborhoods that look and function like these great old neighborhoods.”

In older communities across Michigan, taking care of the good places we already have is the easiest starting point for placemaking—and historic districts are an important foundation for that work.

2015-2016-bannerAs the year draws to a close, we have been reflecting on the League’s accomplishments in 2015. We love where you live, so we’ve been working hard to represent and serve the needs of our member communities in a variety of areas. From our advocacy efforts in Lansing and Washington, D.C. to our placemaking initiative, Legal Defense Fund, talent attraction, crowdfunding, risk management, and our vast array of information, resources, and training, we have done our best to make sure your voices are heard and you have the tools you need to lead your communities. As you read through some of our accomplishments for 2015, rest assured that plans are already in motion to make 2016 an even more successful year.

Legislative Activity

School-Bus-on-Bad-Roads-Potholes-small-for-web-300x199One of the top news stories out of Lansing this year was Governor Snyder’s signing of a long-term road funding package in November, following the defeat of Proposal 1 back in May. But there were many other noteworthy accomplishments in 2015 by the League’s advocacy staff in Lansing and Washington, D.C.

Transportation funding also was a hot topic in D.C., and a major long-term package, called the FAST Act, was signed into law by President Obama earlier this month. Of course, the major national issue in 2016 will be the presidential election, and the League is an active supporter of the Cities Lead 2016 platform led by the National League of Cities.

Back in Michigan, other legislation positively impacting our municipalities includes bills allowing for training reciprocity to out-of-state firefighters; cleaning up the personal property tax (PPT) implementation process; establishing the March Presidential Primary as the election date for local ballot questions; extending the Commercial Rehabilitation Act; expanding recreation authorities; clarifying rental inspections; and changing portions of the Mobile Home Commission Act. Some of these bills have been signed into law and others continue to move through the process.

There are also numerous other issues in which the League was very engaged in 2015 and will continue to be into 2016 , including the Dark Stores Big Box property tax loophole; local speed limits; and a shift in broadband relocation costs to communities.

In addition, throughout 2015 the League has been extremely active behind the scenes informing lawmakers about the state’s broken municipal finance system and the need for change. Stay tuned for more on this major initiative in 2016. For all the latest legislative news be sure to frequently visit the League’s Inside 208 blog here.

PlacePlans

This year, our PlacePlans team not only took on seven new projects around the state, but we also started to see previous years’ projects coming to life. Even as we saw successes from past projects, we continued to refine our process and expand the range of projects we took on to meet our cities’ needs.

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Four of the 2015 PlacePlans maintained our partnership with the MSU School of Planning, Design, and Construction, and built on our shared experience from the past two years. We worked with Benton Harbor, Boyne City, Lathrup Village, and Monroe to develop concepts for public spaces in their downtowns.  In two more cities, Niles and Traverse City, PlacePlans brought in experts from Michigan’s private sector to look at how public spaces and new development could work in concert to create great places. And in Saginaw, we found the need was not about design, but about governance. We facilitated conversations between the various organizations investing in and around downtown to help identify shared priorities and opportunities to support each other’s efforts.

Across these projects, we looked for ways to get more people involved and build more connections to resources that could help the cities move forward. We added local steering committees to our design projects to help us plan outreach and help city staff carry the projects forward after the grant term; we put together “pop-up” events to support planning efforts by taking ideas out to the actual spaces and showing people how they could work;  and we worked closely with partners in MEDC’s Redevelopment Ready Communities program and Public Spaces Community Places crowdfunding program to help our cities get a head start on implementing their designs.

Finally, we worked with five of the cities from earlier iterations of PlacePlans, providing mini-grants to support implementation of their plans. These projects range from the construction of a commercial kitchen near Kalamazoo’s farmer’s market that can support small prepared-food businesses to the creation of developer information packages for key redevelopment sites in Sault Sainte Marie.

Over the last three years, the PlacePlans team has worked with 22 cities across the state—and with thousands of residents and businesses in those communities. We’re now seeing streets transformed, vacant properties rehabilitated, and stronger community ties as a result. There’s no doubt 2016 will see the visions for these places continue to take shape. For our part, we look forward to continuing to learn from these cities’ efforts and to sharing those lessons with the rest of our communities.

PlacePOP

Group-in-chairs-300x200This year, the League launched PlacePOP, an exciting new program focused on civic engagement and tactical placemaking. For a small fee, the League works closely with local partners to develop engaging, temporary improvements to spaces that can improve aesthetics, strengthen community connections, and catalyze future development. So far, the League has partnered with a number of communities with projects ranging from imagining public plazas, to building parklets that temporarily narrow wide streets, to activating vacant storefronts with pop-up retail. For more information and to schedule an activity in your community, visit PlacePOP.

Awards

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2015 MSAE Diamond Award

The League’s placemaking work not only is transforming Michigan communities, but it’s also becoming a nationally recognized model throughout the nation and world. The League and our staff received multiple awards in 2015 to acknowledge the tremendous efforts being done in the area of placemaking and truly showing that “We Love Where You Live.” The League won a Diamond Award from the Michigan Society of Association Executives (MSAE) for our PlacePlans program in the innovative collaboration category for associations with budgets of $1 million and greater. The League also received a Silver Award for its Review magazine in the magazine publishing category. The League’s magazine also won a Gold MarCom award from the Association of Marketing and Communication Professionals. And in June of this year, the League’s John LaMacchia was named a Rising Leader in 2015 by MSAE.

Information and Resources

The League has been hard at work in 2014-2015 to build the information and resources our members need in support of their daily operations. In addition to our sample ordinances, resolutions, and policies on a wide range of municipal topics, we create and maintain one-of-a-kind databases and informational resources.

For example, did you know that the League conducts an annual statewide survey of pay and benefits?  We collect pay and benefit information on 140+ municipal classifications and make that data available through an online database. This type of information is very useful to members as they prepare budgets, research for labor negotiations, or otherwise assess the comparability of their compensation structures.

The database easily exports to Excel and includes information on population, region/county, number of employees in each classification, and a variety of other useful details. This enables the user to perform customized analyses to meet their objectives.  The survey is also helpful in developing benchmarks. For example, the average base pay range maximum for a full-time police officer in the state is $51,345 (147 respondents).  Breaking that down by community population reveals some considerable differences:

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The 2015-2016 survey is currently underway, so be sure to participate so you have access to this valuable data set.

The League also compiled a comprehensive database of our members’ Other Post-Employment Benefits (OPEB) and Pension liabilities. We’ve built the database to include 335 members, and completed additional “deep-dive” analysis on the 100 largest employers, which represents over 90 percent of League members’ employees. Like the pay and benefits dataset, this will be a useful tool for members to use in benchmarking and budgeting.

Legal Defense Fund

curb-lawn-300x200The League’s Legal Defense Fund provides support to communities in Michigan involved in significant litigation or other forms of controversy. One of the most important cases we assisted with this year is Shoemaker v The City of Howell, which was recently decided in favor of municipalities. The issue at hand was the maintenance of the ara of land between the street and sidewalk – variously known as the curblawn, outlawn, or curb-strip. A homeowner in the city of Howell refused to take care of the curblawn after the city finished a streetscape project, which resulted in one of the homeowner’s trees being removed. The homeowner sued the city. The District Court sided with the landowner. The Court of Appeals reversed the judgement and found in favor of the city due to the legitimate governmental interest in the public health and aesthetics.

We also provided support in Deffert v Moe, a case involving open carry of a firearm. Grand Rapids police officers responded to a 911 call regarding a man with a gun. Officer Deffert thought the man appeared to be mentally unstable, so he ordered him on the ground at gunpoint, removed his firearm, then released him after determining that he had a valid permit to carry. The man field suit against the city claiming violation of his first, second, fourth, and fourteenth amendment rights; assault and battery; and false imprisonment. The court found the officer had reasonable suspicion to detain the man long enough to make sure that he was not a threat to himself and others.

Building the Talent Pipeline

Most discussions about talent development in public management start with a somber description of one generation headed for retirement while younger generations pursue careers outside of government and the damage to development positions done by the recession.  True, we’re witnessing a gap in available managers that is in part due to both trends.  But even so, it is an exciting time to be in talent recruitment.  When circumstances don’t allow us to do what we’ve always done, we end up doing something new.

diverse-job-interview-322x200There may not be as many opportunities to start out as an assistant manager or management analyst, so we’re finding candidates from other areas of local government.  Through the League’s Executive Search Service, we have completed 14 searches across the state in 2015.  Nine placements are first-time managers or new to the field, and five of the nine came from public planning and/or economic development backgrounds. This year, 29 percent of our placements were women – which, if you follow the #13percent movement, is more than twice the share of women in the profession.  Even with nearly half of our applicants from out of state, all but two of our placements were from Michigan.  In a time where managers are going to need to innovate to move communities forward, we’re looking forward to seeing what the new managers will create.

As for the challenge of attracting emerging professionals to local government as a career path, we’ve partnered with the Michigan Local Government Management Association (MLGMA) to engage the Master of Public Administration and Policy programs across the state.  Through increasing communication, enhancing student opportunities to attend conferences, and developing resources to bring new talent into the profession.  Although millennials may not be flocking to local government, those the enter the profession tend to stay.*  We’re currently developing resources to connect students with internship and projects in order to give them exposure to public service and build capacity for communities.

Our efforts to recruit and encourage the best leaders for our communities will continue, and we’re expecting next year to be even more exciting!

* Understanding Millennials in Government, Peter Viechnicki. Deloitte University Press. 

Crowdfunding

Crowdfunding is a relatively new phenomenon, and the League has been helping communities take advantage of this unique placemaking tool. We’ve partnered with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Michigan State Housing Development Authority, and Patronicity on Public Spaces Community Places, a crowdfunding initiative that matches funds for local placemaking projects in cities and villages.The current funding success ratio for the 52 identified projects is a whopping 98 percent, with over $1.7 million coming via crowdfunding and another $1.4 million via matching grants from MEDC and MSHDA. None of the projects are large enough by themselves to change the world, but their cumulative effect is paying dividends across the state.

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Rendering of Keyworth Stadium

Michigan’s new investment crowdfunding law has made other types of placemaking projects possible. The law enables people in Michigan to legally invest their own money in local businesses with anticipation of a return. It’s not like the popular Kickstarter or GoFundMe campaigns that are simple donations for a cause, it is an actual platform for investment in small businesses. The League believes the law provides entrepreneurs and start-ups with an exciting new avenue for raising funds. Detroit City Football Club is one such organization taking advantage of this opportunity. They are currently running a community investment campaign to restore the historic Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck as their new home base. An investment in projects like the DCFC’s stadium restoration checks a number of important boxes for a community: recreation, historic preservation, social entrepreneurship, and community (re)building. We will continue to look for ways that crowdfunding in its varied forms can help Michigan communities thrive.

Risk Management

risk-mgmt-firemen-300x200The Risk Management Services Division administers two statewide municipal insurance programs: the Michigan Municipal League Workers’ Compensation Fund and the Michigan Municipal League Liability and Property Pool. The Workers’ Compensation Fund has served our members for almost 40 years. It has grown to over 900 members, with $140 million in assets, protecting 2,500 injured workers each year.

The Liability and Property Pool has 415 community members, $80 million in assets, and handles over 1,200 property, liability and police-related claims and lawsuits each year.

Our efforts to reduce losses, specialized claims service, and careful program management allowed us to return $11 million in dividends to our members last year – over $220 million since the program’s inception.

A formerly vacant storefront in downtown Allegan is filled with activity during Festive Fridays.

A formerly vacant storefront in downtown Allegan is filled with activity during Festive Fridays.

Allegan is doing everything right. They have an historic downtown, a beautiful riverfront, community-wide events, and most importantly, wonderful people who all love where they live.

We had the opportunity to partner with Allegan in 2013 when the community won a PlacePlans grant to create a design concept for their riverfront area. With the goal to further enhance the city’s natural beauty, capitalize upon its historic districts, and jumpstart economic development, the community rallied together to create the riverfront plan they’re actually building today.

Local entrepreneurs sell cupcakes and baby accessories at one of the pop-up stores.

Rob Hillard, Allegan’s city manager, believes in the power of place. He’s educated his staff, counsel, and community on the impact of placemaking and acts as a cheerleader to organize and implement place-based improvements. The push for placemaking doesn’t come from Rob alone, it’s imbedded into the community. When walking downtown Allegan, it’s clear that people care: it’s the kind of place where people are pleased to run into their neighbors on the street, where teenagers hang out in the local coffee shop for an open mic night, and where visitors are genuinely welcomed into the art and antique shops by the small business owners who run them.

We’re so glad that the community’s excitement for placemaking brought us back into Allegan, and this time with our newest League service, PlacePOP. PlacePOP is an initiative focused on tactical and incremental placemaking, with a strong emphasis on civic engagement, education, and inspiration. It’s hard to describe in just a sentence because projects can range from building a pocket park, to bringing a public meeting to the streets, to hosting placemaking workshops. In Allegan, we worked with the community to organize four “pop-up” vendors in vacant downtown buildings. Pop-up retail is more traditionally seen as an economic development tactic for larger communities, like Detroit, but this project illustrates that even smaller places like Allegan have the drive, knowledge, and people to implement pop-up retail effectively.

Holiday lights, decorations, and people fill downtown Allegan during the Christmas parade.

Holiday lights, decorations, and people fill downtown Allegan during the Christmas parade.

Every year, Allegan hosts a December event series that brings people downtown for a small-town holiday experience, Festive Fridays. This year, the community wanted to capitalize on having so many people downtown and showcase a few vacant storefronts. Through PlacePOP, entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and artists are partnering with downtown building owners to fill these empty spaces with temporary businesses, events, and activities.

The collaboration, effort, and organization all payed off at the first Festive Friday on December 4th. As families filled downtown for the annual holiday parade, tree lighting, carriage rides, and historic bridge light show, they were also encouraged to visit Allegan’s permanent businesses and temporary pop-ups to do some shopping, have some fun, and see the opportunity in downtown’s available spaces. And visitors did just that: they shopped, had fun, and were welcomed into storefronts that had been closed just the week before.

There are two more Festive Friday and pop-up events happening in Allegan this month and I encourage all place-lovers to visit and be part of the magic:

December 11th is the Downtown Art HOP where existing businesses host art and crafts from local artists. There are also four PlacePOP venues:

  • 209 Hubbard has vendors selling sweets, baby accessories, headbands, scarves, jewelry, handmade soap, and more;
  • 111 Locust is a collaborative of local artists, Random Acts of Art, selling wood creations, glitter chains, mittens, custom-blended make-up, and more;
  • 114 Locust is hosting a 26-hour Creativity Open House, an all-night, holiday-themed craft and music party;
  • 118 Locust is full of games to play, and wreaths and poinsettias to buy to support 4-H Camp Kidwell.
Visitors answer the question: What would you love to see in downtown Allegan?

Visitors answer the question: What would you love to see in downtown Allegan?

On December 18th, the community is hosting the Downtown Stocking Hop, where kids decorate a stocking and gather goodies from participating businesses Halloween-style. All four PlacePOP venues are also participating but this time the Jaycees are hosting a holiday beer and wine fundraiser in 114 Locust from 5:00 – 10:00 PM.

The pop-ups are a true effort of collaboration, trust, and full support of the community. I encourage anyone who loves Michigan’s communities to visit, support the local vendors, and experience the creativity and fun of downtown Allegan.

Go to http://positivelyallegan.org/making-spiritswntown-allegan/ for a complete list of Festive Friday events.

To inquire about bringing PlacePOP to your community, contact Sarah Craft at scraft@mml.org.