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.

 

 

 

Last week something pretty cool happened: 200 people attended a community visioning workshop in Vassar, MI. The city has a population of about 2,600, so a 7% turnout is a success worth celebrating.pavilion

This visioning event was pretty unlike most organized through a traditional charrette. When I first sat down with the local steering committee as part of our PlacePOP initiative, leaders said they wanted to host an event people actually wanted to come to. They named the project Vassar Vision and decided to host their first event as a “Taste & Talk” to combine two things most people love: food & talking! The Taste & Talk was held on the project site and had barbeque, ice cream floats, games, and plenty of social time. Ronald McDonald was even there.

There is a lot that went into the event, and there’s still a lot to come. However, here’s a quick look at what made the Taste & Talk so successful:

The Place: Ready for Change

Corner Deli is opening downtown Vassar this summer and owners gave out free samples during the Taste & Talk.

Corner Deli is opening downtown Vassar this summer and owners gave out free samples during the Taste & Talk.

Vassar is about two square miles of Tuscola County, located about 15 minutes east of Frankenmuth. Like almost every Michigan community, Vassar lost people, industry, and business in the crash and is working hard to rebuild what was once there. But they don’t just stop there; residents want Vassar to be better than it ever was.

What’s noticeable about Vassar is that people seem excited and ready for change. At the Taste & Talk, my colleagues and I heard zero negative comments. When was the last time that happened at your community meeting? (I’m sure there were a few naysayers present, but we certainly didn’t hear them.)

This past October, council hired a new city manager, Brian Chapman, and encouraged him to go big. He’s young, smart, and off to a strong start in the community. Vassar is also experiencing a pretty unique boom in their downtown. Six new businesses have just opened or are about to open on the same small downtown strip. Residents are thrilled to have a new downtown boutique, coffee shop, and restaurant and they want to make sure these businesses are here to stay. After seeing downtown businesses close in the past, people who love Vassar are eager to step up and do what they can to make sure these businesses succeed.

The Project: Building Momentum, Generating Ideas, Expanding Capacity

After seeing information on the League’s PlacePOP program, Chapman invited me to lead a placemaking workshop this past February. During the workshop, about 30 local leaders learned about placemaking and brainstormed how Vassar can better prioritize place. Attendees broke off into discussion groups and every group identified the same location as an area in need for some TLC. I’ve actually never seen that happen before.

Attendees brainstormed hundreds of ideas during the event.

Attendees brainstormed hundreds of ideas during the event.

The T. North Pavilion area is adjacent to downtown and encompasses a pavilion, play structure, gigantic parking lot, river, drain, and a few miscellaneous buildings mostly used for storage. The pavilion gets some use throughout the year for hockey tournaments, basketball, farmers market, and concert series, and the play structure gets used by kids and young families in the warmer months. The rest mostly just sits there.

When every workshop group identified this area as a top priority, the city took action. They hired the League as project manager to act as a neutral, outside facilitator and to prevent already over-worked city staff from having to manage a new project. Chapman put together a foundational steering committee to guide and make decisions on the project, and the steering committee continues to grow as more and more stakeholders get excited and involved.

Vassar Vision, carried out from late March through September, is an engagement-based process that will develop a concept design and programming plan for the T. North Pavilion area. The project also serves as an important way to unify the community, have fun, and find new leaders who can take the lead on current and future community-wide initiatives.

The People: The Most Important Part

Rebel Soul opened downtown Vassar this spring and gives residents and visitors a unique shopping experience.

Rebel Soul opened downtown Vassar this spring and gives residents and visitors a unique shopping experience.

As in every community, there are some incredible people who make up Vassar. Sandy Keys, for example, is an elderly woman almost solely responsible for getting all nine of the Taste & Talk’s food vendors to host a free tasting table. Although Sandy spent May traveling the country for her grandchildren’s graduations, baptisms, and more, she never stopped doing outreach for the event. “I’m just a volunteer,” Sandy tells people, but it’s clear she’s a lot more than that.

Star Filkins recently opened her boutique, Rebel Soul, in downtown Vassar. Star and her husband moved back to Vassar to be closer to their family as they raise their kids but the transition back home was harder than they expected. As a young mom who had lived in many other places across the country, Star felt there wasn’t much in Vassar for her. She decided to open her shop because she wanted to start building community for herself and for people like her. “This is where I live, where I work, and where I’m raising my children,” Star said. “I’ve seen how awesome other places are and I want Vassar to be like that.”

The owner of Vassar Theatre gave out free popcorn during the event.

The owner of Vassar Theatre gave out free popcorn during the event.

Andreas Fuchs re-opened the downtown Vassar Theatre late last year, which now acts as an important downtown anchor. Andreas thinks of his theatre as more of a gathering place than a movie theatre. “It’s very clear to me that theatre is about community,” he said. “Yes it’s also about movies but it’s more about people. People see movies!” Andreas brings free popcorn just about wherever he goes and hosts costume parties, giveaways, and discussions based on the moves the theatre shows. It’s people like Andreas, Star, and Sandy who make the community what it is.

The Taste & Talk event was both fun and effective, and it happened because the steering committee has ownership and decision-making power over the project. Andreas, Star, and Sandy don’t care about charrettes, they care about their community. And they, along with the rest of the steering committee, hosted an event that was right for Vassar.

I’m looking forward to seeing our design consultants work their magic as they review the hundreds of ideas attendees generated about the use and aesthetics of the space. We’ll be back doing more creative engagement in August as part of Vassar’s Riverfest. I’m guessing it will be another unique and impactful event!

Visit Placemaking.MML.org/PlacePOP for more information on the PlacePOP program. Stay updated with Vassar’s project by joining their Facebook group.

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.

 

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.