American Council on Germany Sustainable Urban Development Study Tour 2019 Participants, Old Town Mannheim, Germany

Melissa Milton-Pung (right) in Old Town Mannheim. Photo credit: Michael Specht

In early December 2019, I joined seven fellow Americans and eight Germans in touring Dusseldorf, Mannheim, and Heidelberg with the American Council on Germany’s Sustainable Urban Development Study Tour. We met with US diplomatic representatives, local elected and appointed officials, and regional experts on sustainable urban development.

The Michigan Municipal League has a tradition of connection with the American Council on Germany (ACG), a non-profit founded in the immediate post-World War II era. Two of my colleagues took part in a similar tour in the late 1990s. Both tours were an unparalleled opportunity to confer with professionals on both sides of the Atlantic working to improve their cities and the lives of their citizens.

My 2019-2020 group was comprised of not only planners and economic development professionals, but also an attorney with brownfield redevelopment expertise, a transportation journalist, the community relations director for Uber Germany, a landscape architect, and even a city councilperson who also serves as the chief of the local riot police. We covered more than 50 miles on foot through three cities and conducted more than 30 substantive meetings over the course of about six days. It was like drinking from a firehose while walking our way to international urban planning enlightenment. Here are my key observations from the first half of this program:

Trans-Atlantic Understanding Lives with Individual Connections
The implicit purpose of the ACG is to foster greater Trans-Atlantic understanding between nations.  We experienced this principle firsthand while meeting with the US Counsel General, the Canadian Counsel General, the Executive Leadership of the Nordrhein-Westfalen Landstadt (state parliament), and cultural diplomatic representation from the AmerikaHaus. In seeing the work of this “North American Friendship Group,” it was heartening to see such strong, familial working relationships and collaborative diplomacy. In a similar vein, over the course of the week, our tight-knit group quickly found that the Germans’ responses to the Americans’ questions, and vice versa, brought forth even deeper discussions about the base assumptions of each democracy and the economic cultural norms which drive government policies.

American Council on Germany Sustainable Urban Development Study Tour 2019 Participants, Multihalle, Mannheim, Germany

Multihalle Event Hall, Mannheim

Carbon Reduction is the Focus
Climate change is discussed in very real terms, and it directly relates to public dialogue about how German cities are taking steps to reduce carbon usage. If economic benefits can be achieved, great. But profit is not the driving goal. There are deep ideological differences between countries in how basic land use laws are structured, and therefore, how development occurs. In Germany, like in the US, consumer behavior changes are tied to local/state level regulations or financial incentives. A surprise in evaluating building systems and carbon reduction measures is that most existing buildings have already been reused and retrofitted for energy efficiency. The adaptive reuse presently being experienced by many US cities was de rigor in Germany more than a few decades ago, and because those methods have been so fully integrated into the common playbook for planners, it is no longer viewed as innovative. Historic buildings viable for reuse have long ago been absorbed by the markets.

Every Day We’re Hustling
At times, it felt like we were visiting a planners’ utopia. Despite that initial strong showing, the struggle to impart best practices for city building showed through at times in the fatigue which crept into practitioners’ voices when describing plans versus realities. All in all, planners in Germany are better funded, better equipped, but not better skilled. Their problems are simply different than ours. They want to accomplish the same kinds of dreams we forecast here in the US – with a more explicit urban eye. They have the benefit of many more tools for public policy and regulation, such as mandating 40% of all new housing units to fall into the workforce and affordable housing range of rent control or the ability to build out multi-modal transit systems, and yet they continue to look for ways to serve a growing population.

This tour showcased dozens of urban practitioners and elected leaders seeking to accomplish many of the same goals we seek to attain here in Michigan. We covered a broad swath of topics, several of which are related to the topics being discussed currently at the League. Sustainable urban development, with heavy focus on carbon reduction measures, transit systems, housing demand, capacity and focus of public education systems, cultural integration for equity and inclusion, and data tracking for incremental improvements.

Rail System in Mannheim, Germany

Rail System in Mannheim, Germany

This study tour is intense and inspiring, and we’re only halfway done. I returned home delighted to be reunited with my family and colleagues, with my mind still full of tremendous experiences. I can’t wait to share the US, when we tour two yet-to-be-announced American cities with our German colleagues during the second half of the program in Spring 2020!

Want to Apply next time around for this Study Tour with the American Council on Germany? Visit more information.

Detroit Roosevelt MMP

Detroit is midstride in its great comeback, emerging like a phoenix in full burn. In a city which has suffered so much loss, not only are community leaders and private investors acting to salvage what remains, but they are making the city whole again by knitting together gaps with new infill. Big impacts have been directed to the downtown core, yet there’s still much to be done at the neighborhood level.

One of the instruments of Detroit’s success was established during the economic recovery, with an unorthodox approach to building preservation and reuse. In 2013, City of Detroit and the Detroit Landbank Authority (DLBA) received an allocation from the Hardest Hit Fund. Working with an army of volunteers from the Michigan Historic Preservation Network and Preservation Detroit, along with homegrown tech experts from Data Driven Detroit (D3) and Loveland Technologies, they created the Detroit Blight Task Force. Out of this creative partnership, Blexting—short for blight texting—was born.

Blexting created a survey of the condition of nearly every property in the city of Detroit. The results were informed recommendations for the demolition of thousands of properties by DLBA. Instead of blindly pushing through blight elimination dollars, Detroit’s leaders used a more sophisticated approach supported by photos and existing conditions data directly uploaded to the survey. By documenting and evaluating a substantial portion of the city’s building stock, the taskforce effectively put assets into a building savings account for when the market ripened for rebirth.

Less than a decade later, Detroit is now activating those saved assets. Neighborhood-level community plans and new developments contain a mixture of building rehab, adaptive reuse, and new infill construction. Sections of the city which had not seen new work in decades are now receiving reinvestment. And it’s far from done.
Detroit is in many ways unique. Yet in other ways, such as scarcity of resources, lost taxable value, and declined population, it mirrors the disinvestment felt by many Michigan towns. Here are lessons learned for Michigan’s aging building stock.

Strategize & Combine Tactics

The decisions cities make today will shape the reality of their future. Cities need to articulate a consensus vision of who they are and who they want to be. Immediate tactics are site inventory, zoning reform, and the choice of target sites for catalytic reinvestment. Doubling down on existing buildings – both historic gems and simply older sites – and development of vacant lots in core city centers can also help cities respond to increasing interest in lessening environmental impact and improving infrastructure resiliency.

Michigan residents are choosing increasingly to live, work, and be in places of authentic texture. And because energy use is an increasingly important issue, they often want it connected to transit. The Q Line on Woodward is one way that Detroit is concentrating effort along an existing corridor, building in walkable transit-oriented development amid the streetcar suburbs of the last century.

Explicitly Advocate for Diversity

Only 8 percent of National Register sites and 3 percent of our National Historic Landmarks represent people of color, women, or members of the LGBTQ community. As stated by National Main Street CEO Patrice Frey in a recent City Lab article, “The preservation movement is also struggling to tell the full American story.”

Cities must build an authentic local vision by asking their residents to help with asset inventory. Get on the ground and engage in conversations with those who live there. Record what defines the place to avoid sacrificing cultural identity.

Detroit is owning the gaps in its recorded history and they’re doing something about it. Through neighborhood planning efforts, the city is backfilling a broad range of under-told histories which are more reflective of all residents. They’re doing this through a pilot event that brings together several departments to engage with local preservation stakeholders. Tiffany Rakotz, a Preservation Specialist at the City of Detroit, says this dialogue will “focus on thematic topics that impact local preservation efforts during this period of recovery and growth.”

Broaden the Concept of “Preservation” to Plan for Attainable Housing

According to recent discussions at the Urban Land Institute’s spring meeting in Detroit, households are now choosing smaller homes in favor of proximity to parks, walkability to shops, and employment. The magical formula here also includes the key calculation of what people can actually afford.

In considering how to rehab Michigan’s aging housing stock and accommodate gaps with new construction infills, communities must choose a diversity of options instead of one single family housing solution. Prior to standardized zoning, historic neighborhoods had small scale commercial next to single-family homes mixed with multi-unit splits, carriage houses turned into apartments, row houses, and duplexes intentionally built next to single units.

By easing zoning restrictions and allowing these natural adaptations to take place by-right in the code, we can not only legalize what has happened in neighborhoods for decades, we can also encourage reinvestment in those same neighborhoods in new and creative ways.

In choosing to allow for a mixture of building types for rebuilding neighborhoods, cities can also communicate that attainable quality for many income bands does not equal luxury housing. Cities also need to develop alternative financing options so people who want to fix up their aging building stock – either in incremental multi-unit development or single-family rehab – can access the funds to accomplish the work.

Tempering community engagement with realistic expectations is key. In Detroit, members of the community are being actively engaged in “preserving … local history, and in creating a vision for the future,” says Rakotz. “I think it is important for the citizens of Detroit to recognize what resources the City is able to provide and for us as public servants to understand what those citizens want.”

The cover for the new crowdfunding report.

The cover for the new crowdfunding report.

The joke could start out like, “Some Boy Scouts, an artist, a curler, beer connoisseurs, and a soccer enthusiast walk into a bar with a dream to raise nearly $1.3 million.” As ridiculous as it’s sounds, it’s no joke. And two types of crowdfunding initiatives available to Michigan businesses and communities actually made it happen.

A new report being unveiled today in Detroit during a national conference of nearly 300 community capital supporters details the power of community capital strategies and tells the success stories of six specific crowdfunding examples in Michigan. The retrospective focuses on the Red Mill Pavilion in Portland, Reach Studio Art Center in Lansing, Tecumseh Brewing Co. in Tecumseh, Earthen Ales in Traverse City, The Drill Shop in Calumet Township, and Detroit City Football Club in Detroit.

The report, Community Investment, Community Growth: A retrospective in Michigan crowdfunding, tells the story of the evolution of crowdfunding, including the high fives, the hard work, and the hits and the misses. The hope is that this report becomes a learning tool that every state can use to activate a previously dormant network of community investors. It’s being released today in Detroit at the ComCap19 – the annual conference of the National Coalition for Community Capital (NC3). The conference draws upward of 400 community leaders, ecosystem builders, entrepreneurs, investors, citizens, and practitioners from across the country. View a press release about the conference here and follow the conference on social media using the hashtags #COMCAP19 and #communitycapital.

The League's Melissa Milton-Pung (left) speaks during a panel discussion today at ComCap in Detroit.

The League’s Melissa Milton-Pung (left) speaks during a panel discussion today at ComCap in Detroit.

Published by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and Michigan Municipal League, the report is a retrospective in Michigan crowdfunding that shares case studies of community capital in action. It lays out the origins of the movement in Adrian, Michigan, the passage of the Michigan Invests Locally Exemption (MILE) Act in 2013, and then details specific crowdfunding projects in Detroit, Traverse City, Lansing, Tecumseh, Calumet Township and Portland.

“This report does an exceptional job of telling the story of one our state’s best-kept secrets – how Michigan and our supporters are leaders in the nation in when it comes to crowdfunding projects making a real impact in our communities,” said Dan Gilmartin, CEO and Executive Director of the Michigan Municipal League. “With community capital, we all can play a part in making our communities better – whether it’s with our ideas, our time, our money or our networks. It all contributes to the inclusivity and opportunity we ultimately seek, and it gives us a voice and a stake in the process.”

Crowdfunding success in Michigan - by the numbers.

Crowdfunding success in Michigan – by the numbers.

The report details the success of two Michigan-specific crowdfunding tools – the donation-based crowdfunding program – Public Spaces Community Places (PSCP) – and investment-based crowdfunding program for business, known as community capital investing. Donation-based crowdfunding raises money through individual donations for a specific project or initiative. Investment-based crowdfunding allows people – not just big-money accredited investors – to invest in local businesses, and these backers get a financial return on their investment.

To date, more than $14 million has been invested in 212 projects in communities through the PSCP program. With the financial backing by MEDC and support by the League, the PSCP initiative provides matching grants for crowdfunded public spaces through Detroit-based Patronicity, an online crowdfunding platform. Through the program, community members donate to support a project for a public space, such as a plaza or community garden, and the transformational idea is backed dollar-for-dollar by a grant from the state of Michigan, up to $50,000. MEDC has contributed almost $6.5 million in PSCP grants to match $7.6 million of crowdfunded donations.

The in-depth report was unveiled today during the conference at a general session at ComCap19 in Detroit  “The Evolution of Community Capital in Michigan” session speakers were Melissa Milton-Pung, program manager for the Michigan Municipal League; Chris Miller, lead economic and downtown developer for the City of Adrian; Katharine Czarnecki, senior vice president of community development for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation; and Angela Barbash, principal of Revalue, a registered investment advisory firm.

“With community buy-in – both figurative and literal – donation-based and investment-based crowdfunding can fill critical gaps in access to capital for businesses and projects in all our communities,” Czarnecki said. “And Michigan is at the forefront of this community capital strategy.”

Crowdfunding panelists from left - Melissa Milton-Pung, Angela Barbash and Katharine Czarnecki.

Crowdfunding panelists from left – Melissa Milton-Pung, Angela Barbash and Katharine Czarnecki. Not pictured is panelist Chris Miller.

Michigan’s PSCP program has an astounding 98 percent success rate. The program has provided $5,000 in match funding for projects as small as a bike rack program in downtown Wayne, while spurring over $105,000 in crowdfunding for projects as large as the Ultimate Trailhead in northern Michigan – both thanks to annual state funding, ease of application and leveraging Patronicity support.

The return on the state’s investment is incredible. Over $7 million of private donations have directly matched the state investment for crowdfunded projects, and these dollars have also helped leverage more than $40 million in additional resources in those communities. That is a ratio of $7.47 leveraged for every $1 of MEDC funding through PSCP.

“That’s an amazing return on the state’s investment,” Czarnecki said. “Now, we’re very excited to see other states following in Michigan’s innovative footsteps. They’re determined and ready to get to work after seeing how our communities and organizations have answered the million-dollar question: ‘How did you do it?’”

But success is not guaranteed, the report concludes. Simply implementing these programs in other states won’t make them successful. Not all communities have the capacity and wherewithal to put these types of projects together no matter how much they believe in empowered spaces and connected places. Ideas, plans and project details often rest on the shoulders of volunteers working after-hours in community rooms. Enthusiasm and energy can wane quickly, according to the report.

“This isn’t a magic formula,” Czarnecki said. “It takes a great deal of time, effort and commitment to bring these projects to fruition. But as we’ve seen, and as this report illustrates, the efforts are well worth it.”

The report is available at the newly updated website. Download a pdf of the report here:

ComCap19 is happening this week in Detroit!

ComCap19 is happening this week in Detroit!

There’s a national conference happening in Detroit this week that will shine a brightlight on Michigan’s highly successful crowding movement.

About 300 investors, community leaders, entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders from across the country will descend on Detroit this week for the annual conference of the National Coalition for Community Capital (NC3). Follow the event on social media using the hashtag #ComCap19.

The conference is taking place June 11-13 at the College for Creative Studies and the HopCat in Midtown Detroit and it will explore how community capital has been an instrumental part of the Motor City’s positive economic development. ComCap moves to a different state each year so it’s an honor to have it in Michigan this year. Last year it took place in Vermont, said Melissa Milton-Pung, program manager for the Michigan Municipal League, which is one of the main sponsors of this year’s conference.

A ComCap education session taking place today in Detroit.

A ComCap education session taking place today in Detroit.

“People may be surprised to hear this conference is coming to Michigan. But it’s no surprise to those of us in the community capital field because Michigan is a proven leader in the nation in the crowdfunding movement,” Milton-Pung said. “This conference is our chance to show the amazing crowdfunding work happening in our state to the rest of the world.”

In fact, an in-depth report on crowdfunding in Michigan will be unveiled during the conference at a general session on Thursday. We will be sharing a press release, with links to the report, tomorrow (June 13, 2019). The general session, titled “The Evolution of Community Capital in Michigan,” features speakers Milton-Pung; Chris Miller, lead economic and downtown developer for the City of Adrian; Katharine Czarnecki, senior vice president of community development for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation; and Angela Barbash, principal of Revalue, a registered investment advisory firm.

The cover of the new crowdfunding report being released June 13 at the ComCap conference.

The cover of the new crowdfunding report being released June 13 at the ComCap conference.

This interactive conference will include two full days of sessions, keynotes, panels, and working groups centered on contemporary community capital how-to’s. Topics include local investing, crowdfunding, equitable economic development strategies, community ownership structures, loan and investment funds, and how local and state governments can support the creation of community capital. The conference can be followed on social media using the hashtags #COMCAP19 and #communitycapital.

Conference sponsors are the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan; the Michigan Economic Development Corporation; the Michigan Municipal League; Port Covington Impact Investments; Council of Michigan Foundations; Center for Community-Based Enterprise; Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer & Weiss; Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan; Small Business Association of Michigan; Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation; and Gingras Global; The Local Frequency. Community partners are Revalue; LocalFirst; TechTown Detroit; New Solutions for Nonprofits; City of Adrian, MI; Build Institute; Hatch Detroit; Wayne State University; Propeller; The Hire Effect; Grubstake; Workforce Intelligence Network; Eastern Market; Community Development Advocates of Detroit; Lean & Green Michigan; Detroit Economic Growth Corporation; and Commonplace. Media partners are Crowdfund Insider; Locavesting; Conscious Company Media; Model D; Concentrate; Metromode; and Detour Detroit. And national partners are Hatch Innovation; Balle; Our Crowd Rocks; Investibule; Fair Food Network; Initiative for Local Capital; and Cutting Edge Capital.

For more information go to the event website here.