Placemaking images from Marquette - the site of the League's 2014 Convention.

Placemaking images from Marquette – the site of the League’s 2014 Convention.

Each year, the Michigan Municipal League Board president gives a welcome speech to kick-off our Convention. League President Jacqueline Noonan, Utica mayor, put her own unique spin on this year’s talk that took place Wednesday afternoon (Oct. 15, 2014) at our Convention in Marquette.

Instead of just talking about things happening with the League, Noonan told about some of the positive placemaking work being done in League member communities. To assist her, we put out a call for examples and our members responded in droves.

We got so many responses that we couldn’t begin to fit them all in her speech. Instead, we decided to put them in this blog. Here are some projects shared with us:

Auburn Hills – Four new developments have opened in the city’s downtown in the past year, including The DEN (Downtown Education Nook) built from the log cabin, a historic landmark in downtown Auburn Hills; the University Center; Auburn Square apartments and retail building; and a new 233-space parking structure.

Battle Creek – The city will be drying its “poop”! Yup, you heard right. Nearly all communities deal with the challenge of solid waste disposal, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one doing what Battle Creek is doing. They are the first municipality in the country to try the PulverDryer process. Plus, the community wrapped up its downtown infrastructure transformation a couple of years ago and construction is now underway on the city’s new farmers market/festival area with a planned completion date of May, 2015.

Berkley's new mobile app.

Berkley’s new mobile app.

Berkley – This past spring, the City of Berkley was among the first Michigan communities to launch a free mobile app for its residents. “Access Berkley” enables residents to interact with the city, request and track work orders, easily find information, and more. The community also has partnered with the Michigan Municipal League to complete a placemaking study for a signature area in its blossoming downtown.

Bessemer – The City of Bessemer recently completed its downtown Ethnic Commons Park depicting the community’s cultural heritage. The project was made possible through a state grant and strong local support.

Blissfield – The community recently opened its new Village Office and Police Station. This is a project long in the making, and it is smack in the middle of downtown, revitalizing a former bank building.

Bronson – The city was able to take advantage of MDOT’s technical assistance program to receive a walkability review of the community. Since that time, the city has acquired a former rail line and plans to create a nearly mile-long walking and recreational path/parkway.

Clare – Cops and Doughnuts located in downtown Clare is a past winner of the League’s Community Excellence Award. The business has experienced tremendous growth in recent years and is helping inspire a revitalization of the entire downtown. The business has experienced record sales this year, bringing in more than 250,000 visitors to the city. The downtown now has zero vacant store fronts, including a recent announcement of the first tenant going into a previously vacant professional building downtown. Other new businesses in town include a new retail shop, restaurant and pub serving only Michigan brews and wines, a coin shop, music store, coffee shop, barber shop, and by December the city’s first brew pub (Four Leaf Brewing). The city also has acquired and moved a historic railroad depot into downtown to house the chamber and visitors’ bureau, arts council, museum and to serve as the trail head for Pere Marquette Rail-Trail.

Davison – The city recently completed its M-15 Recreational Heritage Route bike trail.

The newly renovated Ann Street Plaza in East Lansing.

The newly renovated Ann Street Plaza in East Lansing.

East Lansing – The city recently completed a two-year project to redevelop Ann Street Plaza in its core downtown, including a complete redesign and reconstruction of the plaza to remove vehicle parking, and add benches, landscaping, outdoor fireplace and a performance stage. The project was driven by the adjacent redevelopment of two properties into eight-story and five-story mixed use buildings with upscale apartments and first floor restaurants with outdoor seating overlooking the new plaza. Total investment in the two projects and plaza exceeded $13 million.

Elk Rapids – After purchasing a foreclosed riverfront vacant industrial building, the Village of Elk Rapids cleared the property, opening up a beautiful bay and harbor view from US-31. The new green space has hosted summer folk concerts; a Bourbon, Beer and Bluegrass Festival; and has added more than 20 new boat slips to the upper harbor of Elk Rapids’ award winning harbor enterprise.

Flint – The city created a new health and wellness district downtown in buildings once owned and occupied by The Flint Journal. The city’s farmers market relocated into the former Flint Journal press building and Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine public health program is moving into the Journal’s former office building. The total investment in new buildings, infrastructure and programs is over $80 million and more than 150 new jobs will be on site. The farmers market alone supports over 100 small businesses and is seeing up to 10,000 customers on summer Saturdays.

Fraser – The city is currently finishing the first phase of a boundless park, designed for all children regardless of physical or mental challenges. They received a $300,000 grant from MDNR and expect to finish the first phase – the infrastructure improvements, ADA restrooms and a pavilion – before winter hits. They also just completed a joint bid with the City of Roseville for a new radio read meter system, called Automated Meter Infrastructure. This joint project and bid resulted in estimated savings of more than $300,000 to both communities.

The League's new book has dozens of placemaking success stories from throughout Michigan.

The League’s new book has dozens of placemaking success stories from throughout Michigan.

Grand Haven – The city received an MEDC Downtown Infrastructure Grant to connect a major state highway to its downtown and waterfront. The project involved reconstructing two city blocks to create an attractive entryway to the downtown area from the very busy north/south corridor. Interest in private investment is spiking and the city can hardly keep up with new site plans and building inspections.

Grand Rapids – The City of Grand Rapids, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation partnered with Lofts on Monroe, LLC to support a $2 million private investment in a placemaking project to remodel the historic downtown building for a mixed-use retail, office and residential project located adjacent to the city-owned Memorial Park.

Hastings – After years of effort, the community finally got a hotel that can now be used to attract visitors and host large and small events, such as conferences, weddings and family reunions. The project involved multiple parties and agreements and culminated with the opening of a Holiday Inn Express last winter. The much-needed and sought-after hotel would not have been built if it were not for the gap financing provided by the Barry Community Foundation, through a Program Related Investment (PRI) Revolving Loan Fund (established by local philanthropists) and the Progressive  Intergovernmental Agreements between Rutland Township and the City Hastings to provide Urban Level Services to the site.

Howell – The city recently saw the completion of the Heart of Howell ( project that rehabilitated three historic buildings downtown. The project involved taking three adjacent historic buildings, formally known as the Swanns, Thistledown, and Spag’s buildings, and turning them into a beautiful multi-use complex.

Ironwood – The League’s 2014 Community Excellence Award Winner is experiencing a tremendous resurgence in its downtown, including a new Italian restaurant, a photo studio, a high-end resale clothing store and possibly a micro-brewery. These are all spinoff businesses resulting from the energy and vibrancy generated from a Downtown Blueprint plan created about five years ago. The Downtown Blueprint, was developed in partnership with the city, DDA, and Michigan State Housing Development Authority and led to the establishment of a new art center area downtown.

Mason – The city recently completed construction of a multi-purpose stage in Rayner Park. This stage was constructed to highlight concerts, community theatre, and the Orchestral Society, and has the ability to have movies projected onto the doors. This $50,000 project was completed with volunteer labor, donated funds, and not one dollar of taxpayer money. Also, after five years of posturing, negotiating, and coordinating, restoration work has started on the oldest building in downtown Mason.

An article about Milan's MuniRent cooperative program.

An article about Milan’s MuniRent cooperative program.

Milan – The city has experienced great success working with other local governments to create win-win programs, such as a joint fueling agreement, a sewer treatment agreement and an effort called “MuniRent,” which allows participating entities to quickly and easily rent equipment from nearby municipalities. The city is also on the verge of a downtown redevelopment which has been four years in the making. In addition, the city and community organizations are embarking on a crowdfunding effort to build a pavilion and make other improvements to a centralized park.

Negaunee – The city just completed a $4.3 million dollar wastewater project that allowed three communities to share in the operation of one wastewater treatment facility. More importantly, during the construction of this multi-year project, the City of Ishpeming was able to complete four other projects (with better than anticipated outcomes) due to the enthusiastic cooperation of engineers, MDEQ, contractors, city staff and councils.

Plymouth – The city hosts over 180 events annually as part of its efforts to create a sense of place. Events range from Plymouth’s largest event – Art in the Park, to Yoga in the Park, parades, five different running races, and the annual Rotary Chicken Dinner, serving 11,000 dinners on a Sunday afternoon. All of the events are managed privately and pay the city’s expenses for services provided during the events.

Port Huron – The city boasts several projects resulting from creative partnerships that aim to enhance the downtown area and improve public access to the community’s waterfronts. These projects, including the Blue Water River Walk, Downtown Kayak Launch, and Downtown Lofts, have provided increased recreational opportunities, residential amenities and unique gathering spots for all age groups.

Sault Ste. Marie – The city signed a memorandum of understanding with its sister-city, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada that calls for closer collaboration between the two entities in fostering international economic growth and prosperity initiatives.

Sterling Heights – The city saw the construction of a new state-of-the-art Chrysler 200 assembly facility valued at over $1 billion. It was one of the largest construction projects in southeastern Michigan over the past year and over 1,000 new employees have been added. The plant was destined for closure in bankruptcy, but through a collaborative effort, in which the League was involved, it was saved and is now thriving. It is the only example in the country of a facility being bought out of bankruptcy and reopened. This is a great example of collaboration. And as city manager Mark Vanderpool says, “It is hard to implement placemaking without economic vitality. They go hand in hand.” Sterling Heights also completed a kayak/canoe landing on the Clinton River. The city has seven miles of bike/hike trails and most of the system is along the Clinton River.

A rendering of the new ballpark in Utica.

A rendering of the new ballpark in Utica.

Utica – The city and Macomb County over the summer announced plans to construct a 2,500-seat minor league baseball park that will be home to a newly formed local baseball league as early as next year. Utica Mayor Noonan called the project a “game-changer” for the tiny, 197-year-old city, with Utica attracting families, shoppers and more tax dollars, while parcels that have remained empty for many years will be put to use.

The Michigan’s Municipal League’s new book, The Economics of Place: The Art of Building Great Communities, is being officially unveiled at this week’s Convention in Marquette. (View photos from our Convention here.) The book is full of dozens of more placemaking stories. Learn more at and you can order the book by clicking here.

Matt Bach is the League’s director of media relations. He can be reached at and (734) 669-6317.


Grand-River-Marketplace-bannerOver snacks and drinks, our group of five had been immersed in a lively conversation about the benefits of living downtown. As we left Grand River Marketplace, Leslie Youngdahl chimed in with a laugh, “I’m going to walk home now.” Youndahl, the only 20-something among us, was just a few short blocks away from her downtown Jackson apartment. She knew the rest of us would have to climb into our cars and burn up some expensive gasoline to get home.

An hour earlier, we had all attended a public forum on Jackson’s new Anchor Initiative, a placemaking program designed to revitalize the city’s historic downtown and attract millennial talent. The forum was presented by Allan Hooper, state director for community economic development at Consumers Energy, and Hendrik Schuur, treasury director for Allegiance Health. Along with Youngdahl, Consumers’ community development program manager, they represented Jackson’s two largest anchor institutions.

Anchor-Initiative-300x200In January, Consumers and Allegiance joined forces to get the Anchor Initiative off the ground. The program’s three-pronged approach stresses the value of living, investing and innovating locally. It also emphasizes the important role that private sector anchor institutions can play in developing the physical, social and economic conditions that can help the city thrive.

To solidify the initiative, Consumers and Allegiance are recruiting other local businesses to join in the effort by committing to these actions:

  • Invest in an independent 501c3 organization focused on developing and implementing anchor strategies.
  • Consider a rental incentive to encourage employees to live downtown – $100/month for up to two years.
  • Participate in aggregating needs for hotel space and extended stay apartments to create the scale needed to stimulate a viable mixed-use development.
  • Consider implementing year-round co-op style internships to support a downtown rental market.
  • Participate in aggregating purchasing to support a buy local initiative that creates a more robust supply base.
  • Be active in engaging their millennial generation workers in a Jackson young professionals organization.

To date, about 13 local businesses have expressed support for the program, including Alro Steel, Dawn Food Products, Eaton Corporation, and TAC Manufacturing.

Mechanic-St-3-womenThe Anchor Initiative’s first prong – live locally – is designed to attract more millennials to live in downtown Jackson. Their presence would provide local businesses with the talented young workforce they need as well as encourage the development of more market-rate rental housing downtown.

“We like the convenience factor of being able to walk or ride a bike to work. We like to be near restaurants because we don’t cook much – we’re always on the go. And there are things going on downtown that we want to be involved with and make an impact,” said Youngdahl, referring to her fellow millennials, many of whom belong to the new Jackson Young Professionals group.

This aspect of the initiative is modeled after Live Midtown, a live-where-you-work rent incentive program in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood. Participating Jackson companies will offer their employees a rent incentive to live downtown, probably about $100 per month for a period of about two years. “We’re confident that there’s a tipping point,” said Hooper. “Once people start living downtown, they’ll keep living there.”

Consumers and Allegiance anticipate beginning the rent incentives this Fall. Other companies are expected to start offering them early next year.

The second prong of the initiative – invest locally – is designed to boost Jackson’s economy and tackle the high commercial vacancy rate downtown. Efforts will be made to promote investing and buying local, encourage increased local purchasing by anchors, and entice anchors’ vendors to invest in a downtown location.

The third prong – innovate locally – involves capitalizing on the needs of Jackson’s anchor institutions. An emphasis on their specialties, purchasing power, and skill and technology needs can offer opportunities for entrepreneurship.

The Anchor Initiative recently announced that Hooper has been selected as the organization’s first executive director. He will be retiring from Consumers Energy to assume this new position.



crowdArtPrize attracted more than 400,000 people this year to enjoy 1,536 pieces of art scattered throughout Grand Rapids. The 19-day event is coming to a close this week as the public and art experts determine winners of a $260,000 and $300,000 prize.

big artThe public vote just narrowed down their favorite top twenty pieces and visitors have a chance to cast their final votes until midnight on October 9. A juried panel of art experts will also determine a separate winner, and both will be announced at the ArtPrize Awards on October 10.

ArtPrize does more than recognize artists; it attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors, boosts economic activity an estimated $22 million, and gives Grand Rapids residents something to be proud of. This is large-scale placemaking that has a dramatic impact.

Although other communities would struggle to host a similar event, elements of ArtPrize can and should be replicated across the state:


Celebrate art and local culture

Let art and cultural presentations take over public and private spaces. Allowing visitors to freely travel through interesting, attractive, and engaging pieces of art, as they do during ArtPrize, gives people an excuse to visit downtown. They’ll fill the streets, get something to eat, and enjoy the local environment.

Engage the publicstreet

ArtPrize gives visitors a chance to vote for their favorite pieces, which eventually awards one winner a $260,000 prize. Anything that empowers residents to make decisions, participate, share ideas, or contribute in some way, will be a more powerful and memorable experience.

Host an event that’s welcoming to all

Ensuring an event is accessible to all kinds of people is an important consideration. Make sure activities are accessible to people with disabilities, the young and old, and are welcoming to people of all backgrounds and cultures. Consider geography, venue, theme, cost, food choices, and language options to ensure the event is welcoming to everyone who may attend. The more people in attendance, the stronger the impact on the community.

Use effective messaging and technology tools

ArtPrize has a strong social and traditional media presence to promote the event and recognize participating artists. Visitors also have the ability to download an app to their smart phone to vote for their favorite pieces, learn about Grand Rapids, and get updates on the competition. In 2014, it’s crucial for communities to share information, promote events, and allow for visitor engagement through technology.

clocksGo with the flow

Grand Rapids has been full of activity since ArtPrize started. Instead of being strict about what people could and couldn’t do, the city seemed to go with the flow. Children played in city fountains; street performers entertained passerbys; artists not formally part of ArtPrize shared their work in public spaces. Yes, police helped patrol busy intersections, but the city didn’t feel over-controlled. People were free to do what was fun, comfortable, and safe.

Art will be on display in Grand Rapids through October 12. I encourage you to explore the event and brainstorm how you could incorporate elements of ArtPrize through events in your own community. Even if you miss ArtPrize this year, Grand Rapids has a lot to offer and the city would be happy to host your visit any time of year!



UIX Discussion: A philanthropic perspective on designing cities

UIX Discussion: A philanthropic perspective on designing cities

As the city government continues to get itself sorted out (Detroit passed a resolution last week to return powers to elected officials but keep the emergency manager in control of the city’s bankruptcy process), residents and visitors keep doing what they’ve been doing: being innovative, creative, and promoting community.

Last week, the Urban Innovation Exchange (UIX) hosted an event in Detroit as a way to advance the city’s innovation movement. They hosted a series of talks, presentations, and tours to highlight ways residents in cities around the country are improving their communities one small project at a time.

Small has a big impact

At Wednesday’s forum, The Art of Place, attendees heard from 11 creative leaders who are spearheading unique placemaking projects. Organizers from Detroit SOUP, The Alley Project, and others represented some of the city’s innovative projects, but the audience also got to hear about interesting projects across the country. To highlight a few:


UIX Presentation: The art of placemaking

UIX Presentation: The art of placemaking

CoSIGN Cincy is a way to change the perception of a neighborhood by allowing artists to create new signs for local businesses in Cincinnati. Organizers hosted a competition that paid for the development of the top-10 signs.

The project’s ability to connect unlikely people – artists, business owners, engineers, city zoning officials, and the greater community – makes it a great placemaking project that has a clear impact on the area’s local economy. Not only do new, unique signs improve the streetscape’s aesthetics, some owners said foot traffic nearly doubled after the sign was installed.

Eve Picker is active in the fields of design, architecture, and community and real estate development. She founded CityLAB in Pittsburgh (a self-described as “a do tank, not a think tank”) and, a new real estate crowdfunding platform to raise equity for transformational real estate projects. In her UIX presentation, she walked us through the costs and returns of small, community-led projects (such as a street market) vs. those of large, top-down projects (such as an athletics stadium). Eve urged the audience to help change the way our elected officials think about change, and do what we can to support the more creative, innovative, and small community-led initiatives.

Food, education, and entrepreneurship

Dlectricity: Artists projecting images on a garage near the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit

Dlectricity: Artists projecting images on a garage near the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit

At UIX’s Thursday forum, The Future of Food, a variety of food entrepreneurs and food access advocates shared their successes and lessons to an engaged audience.

Sustainability was the main focus of the speakers from the CDC Farm & Fishery (Detroit), Rid-All Green Partnership (Cleveland), and Tiny Diner (Minneapolis): the two former being urban farming and aquaponics operations and the latter being a neighborhood food system in the form of a restaurant.

Education was a large part of most of the featured programs, bringing together equity and health. The Food Trust (Philadelphia), Food Revolution Cooking Club (Pittsburgh), and Detroit Food Academy (Detroit) are active with youth and often work in schools to educate students about nutrition and cooking. FoodLab Detroit and (revolver) (Hamtramck) offer new venues to showcase food entrepreneurs and engage the community.

There was clear consensus and optimism among the speakers to move away from an industrialized, one-size-fits-all food system for local, customized networks that consider social and environmental costs.

Making place with art

Dlectricity: Light stage on Warren and Woodward

Dlectricity: Light stage on Warren and Woodward

Detroit also hosted annual creative events last week, the Detroit Design Festival and Dlectricity. With more than 50 art displays or discussions throughout the week, the city’s Midtown and Downtown was full of activity, art, and people. Arts and culture are essential components of a thriving, knowledge-based economy. A healthy creative sector attracts and retains residents and businesses, and produces economic benefits.

Detroit seemed to be the champion of placemaking last week: the city prioritized people, place, conversation, and creativity. All components of a healthier, more vibrant city.