I got goose bumps watching giant paper mache creatures come to life, limited only by their creator’s imagination. It was the 8th annual Festifools, an event that takes place on the first Sunday of April to celebrate April Fool’s Day.  For one hour, these majestic puppets marched to the beat of music up and down Main Street, often stopping to interact with the throngs of spectators.  Although it is a well-orchestrated event requiring hundreds of hours of preparation, the beauty of it is that it has the look and feel of a random, spontaneous, “let’s get together” street party that brings out people of all ages.

Festifools photo 1Mark Tucker, a University of Michigan art teacher to mostly non-art majors, was searching for a novel way to bring his students together with community members to create something unique and exciting for his “Art in Public Spaces” course.  The result was the Street Theather Art (START) project.  Through his work with a neighborhood theater group, he got the idea to create a student puppet-making workshop assisted by community volunteers which would culminate at the semester’s end with a public parade in downtown Ann Arbor.  With the whole concept not really clear in his head, and not knowing if they could even really deliver, his encouraging talks with the business community and the city spurred him on – and Festifools was born.  Because of its enormous popularity, a second event was added:  FoolMoon, a nighttime luminary festival that takes place on the Friday night before the Festifools parade.

Tucker saw the importance of actively encouraging students to work with the community and used his students to bring the arts to the community in a fun, whimsical way creating an engaging and educational experience for all ages.

Festifools - clownsCultural Economic Development is one of the 8 assets that the League has identified to help create desirable and unique places to live.  It’s an event like Festifools that not only brings people together, but contributes to the long-term economic health of a community and region.

The League had the opportunity to go behind the scenes and visit the studio where the puppets are made as well as participate in one of the several workshops held downtown that invites the community to come in and make their own luminary.  We had a chance to hear all about this creative experience from Tucker himself and we will be telling his story in more detail in the future.  For now, check out the video and get a flavor of what these majestic puppets have to offer.  I promise that you’ll get goose bumps too!

Cadillac community stakeholders were busy at work again last week creating a sense of place centered around a critical one-block area of the downtown, connecting the backs of businesses like the Clam Lake Beer Co. along Mitchell Street and the new Baker College student apartments with the city’s lakefront park, band pavilion, award-winning Clam River Greenway and soon-to-be White Pine Trailhead.

After one-on-one stakeholder interviews and a great community visioning session in early December, a steady stream of stakeholder groups and interested citizens could be found visiting the two-day charrette last week, examining the two initial design concepts created by the MSU PlacePlans design team. The convenient location of the charrette process on the third floor of a contiguous building provided a bird’s-eye view of the design area, greatly aiding discussion.

Collaborative discussion resulted in creative suggestions such as the addition of a second dock for boaters, a separate dedicated fishing pier, landscape-designed seating for music events, the memorial fountain as a year-round attraction, brightening up and creating friendly access at the backs of bordering businesses, and creating safe and attractive walkways from nearby parking.

Rotary Pavilion - CadillacCadillac residents and business owners were not only philosophical and strategic about the typically bristly issue of reduced parking, but also about the service delivery alley and the sometimes polarizing subject of potentially closing Lake Street. They tended toward compromise in all areas, such as keeping Lake Street engineered as a roadway, but designed as a pedestrian environment with retractable bollards for opening and closing the roadway as practical.

The Michigan Municipal League is proud to be partnered with MSU  and MSHDA in the PlacePlans program, and we are as excited as the people of Cadillac to see the next and near final, concept unveiling.

Holland PlacePlansWe visited with a full house of residents in Holland this past week who were intrigued to learn more about the PlacePlans project, and how it will further the goals of the city’s strategic plan.  Everyone was eager to discuss the opportunities that might emerge through strategic development of the City’s Western Gateway.  The Western Gateway is a critical connection between the successful downtown district and the thriving Farmer’s Market and civic center area, ending at the beautiful waterfront park.

Discussion quickly turned to the opportunities that lay untapped in this key corridor, and ways that great design and effective strategic planning can converge to promote economic development.  With numerous projects and initiatives underway the community is poised to create a truly unique urban space, distinct from the principal shopping district and complementary to the Farmer’s Market.  Development of the Western Gateway would activate what is now a missing link, knitting together some of the communities best assets—the waterfront, civic center area, historic neighborhoods, farmer’s market, and the downtown district.

Ideas around food innovation emerged as a primary interest, with great discussion of ways that the farm market and major food producers in the area might utilize the Western Gateway as a hub for entrepreneurial activity related to the food industry.  It was fantastic to hear the community members share such creative ideas about how to use what is best about that area to establish an authentic district that would add to the fabric of the community.

Brighton is one of many Michigan cities to embrace the placemaking concept.

Brighton is one of many Michigan cities to embrace the placemaking concept.

A new study released today (Jan. 22, 2014) by the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy shows that more local governments than ever before are utilizing placemaking as an economic development tool in their communities.

The Michigan Municipal League for several years has promoted placemaking as an economic driver and it’s extremely encouraging to see the concept taking hold and making a different in so many Michigan communities, said League CEO and Executive Director Dan Gilmartin.

“These survey results further prove that local government leaders not only increasingly talk the placemaking talk, but that they also walk the placemaking walk,” Gilmartin said.

Placemaking is a community and economic development strategy that attempts to capitalize on local assets to create appealing and unique places where people want to live, work, and play.

“In placemaking, communities use what they have whether it’s arts, cultural amenities, parks, architectural design, lakes or walkable streets to create a strong bond between people and the places they live,” said Tom Ivacko, administrator and program manager for the Ford School’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy (CLOSUP).

The poll, part of the Michigan Public Policy Survey series at CLOSUP, reports:

- 51 percent of Michigan’s local leaders say they believe placemaking can be effective
in their jurisdictions as of 2013, compared to 39 percent who reported confidence in
placemaking’s effectiveness in 2009.

- Even in jurisdictions that are not engaged in placemaking efforts, 35 percent of local leaders say it would be an effective strategy for their jurisdictions, and just 12 percent believe it would be ineffective.

- Local leaders see links between placemaking and entrepreneurship, but say they face barriers to attracting more entrepreneurs including access to capital (72 percent), unappealing buildings and landscape design (29 percent), deteriorating infrastructure (27 percent), lack of late night entertainment (26 percent) and information technology infrastructure (21 percent).

- Jurisdictions in Southeast Michigan (55 percent) were the most likely to pursue placemaking in 2013, followed by those in the Upper Peninsula (37 percent), the
Northern Lower Peninsula (33 percent), the Southwest and West Central Lower Peninsula (each at 29 percent), and the East Central Lower Peninsula (25 percent).

The League and other proponents of place-based economic development argue that by creating vibrant downtowns, neighborhoods, or public spaces, and improving a community’s quality of life, talented workers will be drawn to move there, and they will attract new businesses as well as start their own.

View the full report herehttp://closup.umich.edu/files/mpps-spring-2013-placemaking.pdf. View a press release about it here. And you can go to placemaking.mml.org for more on the placemaking concept and examples of placemaking in action throughout Michigan

Matt Bach is director of media relations for the Michigan Municipal League. He can be reached at mbach@mml.org and (734) 669-6317.