Several presentations at the Hometown Summit have featured the positive role that universities and colleges and other types of research institutions, such as non-profit think tanks, can play in helping their host community develop and grow.

Erie, PA, for example, has a homegrown think tank, the Jefferson Educational Society, which brings in researchers and big thinkers from other places and helps them apply their work to the local context.

24 educational institutions in the Milwaukee area have launched the Commons, an effort to train students to become entrepreneurs and get them more engaged in the region, increasing the chances that they stay after graduation.

I was impressed by the unifying feature of all of these institutions: a core mission statement or goal of helping their host city, specifically around economic growth. Johns Hopkins University, for example, has laid out specific goals around talent attraction & retention for the City of Baltimore AND the University. Even better, they have goals around increasing city tax revenue.

So ask yourself if your community’s institutions have similar goals. If not, the advice from the speakers at the Hometown Summit is to ask and keep asking, taking advantage of the decentralized “silos” of these institutions to not take no for an answer. If the college president’s office doesn’t have the interest or the budget to take on these challenges, there’s a good chance another institute or office within the broader organization will.

Eastern Michigan University represents the largest employer in Ypsilanti, Michigan. However, because Ypsilanti has not been among the most appealing places to buy a home in Washtenaw County, several of the university’s employees live outside of the community. Recognizing this conflict, Eastern Michigan University and Washtenaw County came up with an implementation strategy that will help stabilize the community, address blight, decrease travel time to work, and promote local shopping and walkability. In addition to promoting walkability, reducing travel time to work may help relieve the overwhelming parking problem on campus. The LiveYpsi home-buyer program was introduced in 2012 to provide Eastern Michigan employees with an incentive to buy their homes in Ypsilanti.

What is it?

Modeled after LiveMidtown in Detroit, the LiveYpsi home-buyer program offers all full-time Eastern Michigan University employees a forgivable loan of $5,000 or $10,000 that will assist with purchase or home renovations, presuming that the newly purchased home will serve as their primary residence. The loan amount is determined based on the purchase location of the home; homes purchased in neighborhoods with less stability receive larger loans to incentivize investment in challenged neighborhoods and avoid a clustering of purchases that neglect these areas.


Why is this relevant?

The LiveYpsi program is an attempt to eliminate blight and revitalize neglected communities. Tying the loan amount to purchase location provides a greater incentive for homebuyers to invest in neighborhoods they may not have initially considered. Avoiding a concentration of homebuying within the same general areas allows for a more equitable distribution of economic development. This facilitates a more widespread blight elimination process, creating a more desirable community and sense of place for current and prospective residents of Ypsilanti.

Who’s involved?

After receiving a generous, one-time donation of $30,000 from the DTE Foundation to get the program up and running in 2012, LiveYpsi has since been equally funded by Eastern Michigan University and Washtenaw County.

Eastern Michigan University Assistant Professor stands with her partner in front of the house they recently purchased in Ypsilanti through th LiveYpsi Program Photo by Angela J. Cesere |

Eastern Michigan University Assistant Professor stands with her partner in front of the house they recently purchased in Ypsilanti through the LiveYpsi Program. Photo by Angela J. Cesere |

Program Success

The program has proven to be a big success since its 2012 launch, and it is anticipated that it will continue for years to come. The program is being utilized, there is high demand, residents are doing more local shopping and eating, and neighborhood quality has been improving. Roughly 40 homes have been purchased through the program thus far. LiveYpsi has the power to yield positive economic impacts for the city as it provides residents with a sense of place while also promoting the circulation of money within the community.


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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!

streetsignRecently, a team of League staff members visited the city of Sault Ste. Marie on two separate missions: two staffers were there to film a new Town Gown “vlog” (video blog) on the city’s partnership with Lake Superior State University, and its vision to become a “university town” rather than simply a “town with a university.” The other duo was there to look into the city’s Historic Water Street project that is redefining the under-utilized waterfront running along the Soo Locks.

Those might sound like very different subjects. But both are examples of how city officials are engaging with citizens and collaborating with community partners to build a sense of place that is uniquely “the Soo.”

The city’s streetscape renovations and revitalization have provided a waterfront gathering place for people to relax, exercise, learn and celebrate. The placemaking project includes a new half-mile interpretive walkway stretching from the Soo Locks to the historic homes of some of the community’s most notable founders. The walkway features 33 informational panels detailing the area’s rich history from its beginnings as a Native American village to its establishment as Michigan’s oldest European settlement in 1668. City Hall, a recently repurposed historic Federal Building, is situated on historic grounds at the center of the walkway, providing a premier location for festivals and community gatherings, from weekend festivities to leisurely evening walks.saultstemarie-waterstreet

On the town gown front, Sault United is a steering committee composed of community leaders representing the City, the University, War Memorial Hospital, the area and intermediate school districts, the economic development corporation, and the downtown development authority. The effort is a direct result of a pilot project led by the League to help the city find new ways to evolve into a true university town.

In both cases, the city has opened its doors to creative partnerships on every level, from bringing LSSU students downtown for a zombie walk and haunted homecoming parade, to working closely with local native tribes to ensure the new Water Street project tells both sides of the community’s rich and colorful past with accuracy and mutual respect.

The results of these ongoing efforts are already visible in terms of economic impact and a reenergizing of the entire downtown. Thousands gathered downtown for the city’s and university’s newly combined Halloween festivities. A photography scavenger hunt encouraged students to explore the city’s landmarks and businesses. A whole calendar of first-time and annual events brought crowds to a newly vibrant Water Street in 2012, with even more events planned for 2013 and beyond.

If you haven’t been to Sault Ste. Marie in a few years and think the Soo Locks are all there is to see, then it’s time to plan another visit to “the place where Michigan was born.” But bring a big suitcase. Once you’re there, you just might want to stay.