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. Chapman 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 earier 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.

 

 

 

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

2015-Diamond-Awards

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:

police-salary-chart-400x240

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.

dcfc_keyworth_rendering-300x199

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.

Last week I had the chance to check out progress on part of Kalamazoo’s PlacePlan: a “road diet” on a section of Portage Street, passing through the Edison neighborhood’s historic Washington Square district.

Portage Street had suffered the same fate as numerous urban roads: in the name of carrying the most cars at the fastest speed, the asphalt was widened over time until it squeezed the sidewalks up against the storefronts, contributing to the decline of the businesses in this area and the decay of the buildings.

In August 2014, pedestrians in Washington Square faced traffic zipping around a blind curve, uncomfortable close to the too-narrow sidewalk.

In August 2014, pedestrians in Washington Square faced traffic zipping around a blind curve, uncomfortably close to the too-narrow sidewalk.

As a result of our work with Kalamazoo through the 2014 round of PlacePlans, the city has implemented a light-weight reconfiguration of Portage Street: it now has 3 lanes (one in each direction and a left turn lane) in place of 4.  This pulls traffic away from the curb, making the street less hostile to pedestrians, it pulls cars turning left out of the flow of traffic, reducing rear-end crashes, and it provides room for several blocks for a bike line connecting Washington Square to downtown.  Driving through the area at 5:15pm, when the pavement should be at its busiest, traffic was smooth and there were no significant delays, even though the change is still new and unfamiliar to drivers.

In the "trial" stage of the road change, traffic is pushed away from the curb--even just white paint gives people some breathing room.

In the “trial” stage of the road change, traffic is pushed away from the curb–even just white paint gives people some breathing room.

Right now, the change is a test–essentially just changing the paint and the traffic signal timing–but the city is planning to rebuild the street in a few years.  The trial period will let Kalamazoo figure out whether to continue and improve on the 3-lane version of the road when they rebuild, or go back to the drawing board: either way, they’ll be entering that process with good experience and traffic data.

What’s happening outside the right-of-way is also pretty exciting: the Kalamazoo Land Bank owns several properties in the area, and four once-vacant storefronts have filled up since we delivered their PlacePlan: a fitness studio, sandwich shop, credit union branch, and artisans market inhabit the newly renovated spaces.  While we can’t claim credit for the storefront rehabs–the Land Bank came to the table with these buildings already in-progress–these businesses and those that join them will offer more evidence of the power of coordinated public and private investment to make great places.

This building, vacant a year ago, has had a facelift and hosts three new businesses; the corner space is still under construction, but the building looks great even in the too-early November twilight.

This building, vacant a year ago, has had a facelift and hosts three new businesses; the corner space is still under construction, but the building looks great even in the too-early November twilight.

Kalamazoo’s next step is the farmers’ market charrette coming up November 19-20: as their market bursts at the seams, they’re planning out the next stage of its growth–including how it connects to Washington Square and other areas nearby.

Benton-Harbor-final-design-300x200In the lively atmosphere of The Livery in downtown Benton Harbor, the community gathered to see and celebrate the final PlacePlan for Dwight Pete Mitchell City Center Park on Oct. 22. Many in the crowd had participated in the three previous Square 1 design workshops, so they were anxious to see how all their ideas had been translated into the design.

Mindful of the community’s desires for a park that was both inviting and easy to maintain, the MSU designers added some elements and removed others from the plan presented in August. Creative lighting, public art, a permanent space for the Benton Harbor Farmer’s Market, and a permanent stage for events such as the annual Coming Home Coming Together Concert all made it into the final rendering. Other items that would be more costly to maintain, such as a splash pad and ice rink, made an exit stage left.

To help move the park design toward implementation, the League’s Richard Murphy presented a variety of potential funding mechanisms. Crowdfunding is one possibility. Grant programs through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development are other options.

Benton-Harbor-Marja-2-others-crop-300x200The design plans are now being turned over to the Benton Harbor Parks Conservancy, which will be responsible for helping those plans become reality. “We can’t do it without your help,” said Benton Harbor Parks Conservancy president Stephannie Harvey-Vandenberg to the crowd. The community seemed enthusiastically ready to offer their support. Signatures quickly filled a large banner with the new hashtag #BelieveinBH. And small posters were emblazoned with residents’ hopes for the community they love.

We fully expect to see great things happen at Dwight Pete Mitchell City Center Park!

Read more about the Benton Harbor PlacePlan.