iag_seal_largeYesterday, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, made an exciting announcement for those of us supporting crowdfunding and placemaking in Michigan: the Public Spaces, Community Places program is one of seven finalists nationwide for the Innovations in American Government Award. This is wonderful recognition for the core partners on the program, Patronicity, MEDC and the League, as well as others who have contributed to the program, including MSHDA and MParks.

A team from the Michigan partner organizations will be traveling to Harvard’s campus May 16 and 17 to make a final pitch to the award judges. Summer Minnick and I will be representing the League. Follow along on this blog and via Twitter (Luke and Summer) where we’ll share additional updates.

See Harvard’s release for more information on the award and all the programs they recognized.

Spoiler alert: If you like to be surprised when you pick up the League’s Review, maybe wait until you get the July issue to read this post—I’m going to be talking a bit about the projects from my article in that issue, because word count made me leave these notes out.

I recently sat down with the heads of two projects from the Public Spaces Community Places crowdgranting program; both projects adaptively reused vacant Ypsilanti properties as community spaces.  One, the Ypsilanti Farmers Marketplace, has made an old drive-through bank mini-branch and adjacent 1930s warehouse into an indoor/outdoor market, event space, retail garden supply store, and demonstration kitchen.  The other, Cultivate Café and Tap House, turned an unassuming auto repair garage into a community room.

In both cases, the “business”-like activities of the managing non-profit are a critical piece of the placemaking effort’s success, and good reminders that getting the physical design of the space right is not enough on its own.

Ypsiplanti offers an amazing array of garden tools, seeds, books, houseplants, compost, and similar products in a tiny footprint.

Ypsiplanti offers an amazing array of garden tools, seeds, books, houseplants, compost, and similar products in a tiny footprint.

The Marketplace is teeming with people on market days: over 300 people visited in the first hour of the opening Tuesday earlier this month.  But what happens the rest of the week? Many farmers market sites sit vacant and empty outside of market days.  To address this, Growing Hope has opened “Ypsiplanti”, a hole-in-the-wall garden supply inside the old bank building.  Not only does this fill a gap in downtown Ypsilanti, which previously lacked such a store, but it also draws some traffic to the site 6 days a week. The level of activity certainly doesn’t compare to market days, but having a staff member on the site provides “eyes on the street” and keeps the marketplace from feeling like dead space.

Cultivate uses its glossy coffeehouse appearance to bring people together.

Cultivate uses its glossy coffeehouse appearance to bring people together.

The founders of Cultivate, similarly, use the café’s coffee and beer to feed the nonprofit space’s function as a community gathering place, in terms of both revenue and people.  Beverage sales pay for the few paid staff and keeping the lights on, with additional proceeds and tips going towards the organization’s charitable work of fighting hunger. Running a coffee shop certainly doesn’t qualify as “easy”, but providing people a cup of coffee while they talk is a way to raise money in the process of the community building work, rather than having to constantly set aside that function in order to focus on organizing fundraiser events.

As well, coffeehouses and pubs have set the model for “third places” for centuries for good reason—they are places people go individually and have spontaneous interactions, rather than relying on organized events to get people together.  While I have attended specific, planned events at Cultivate, I’ve much more often gone there because, well, I wanted coffee, and wound up talking to someone I ran into. The first draft of my Review article was written there, which was perhaps a poor choice for productivity, but a good one for community: I was distracted repeatedly in talking to a neighbor, a city councilmember, a DDA board member, and a local historian who wanted to pick my brain about past property ownership on a particular street.

While the central focus of our placemaking work has been on the physical space—the piece cities tend to have the most direct control over—these examples highlight the importance of offering people everyday reasons to use the space. In both of these cases, the physical space and the activity generation were handled by the same organization, in conscious coordination. Cities may not be able to copy exactly these models in their own public space projects, but should actively look for partners who can provide reasons for people to use the space once it’s there.

There's a sidewalk here, but the snow and ice cover renders it impassible for some and dangerous to all.

The sidewalk doesn’t end here, but any reasonable expectation of safe travel does.

With many of Michigan’s communities recovering from our coldest or snowiest Februaries on record, the Water Hill neighborhood in Ann Arbor is making headlines from The Atlantic’s CityLab to the Christian Science Monitor with “SnowBuddy.” From their webpage:

SnowBuddy is a unique nonprofit sidewalk snow removal service run like a public radio station.  It provides its service for free to an entire area and is supported by donations.

Instead of dividing walkways into segments assigned to property owners, SnowBuddy sees the sidewalk as a continuous right-of-way, a transportation corridor most appropriately maintained in its entirety, using municipal-quality equipment, as a service to the community.

SnowBuddy's tractor can clear the sidewalk in front of a residential lot in approximately 10 seconds.  Photo courtesy Paul Tinkerhess.

SnowBuddy’s tractor can clear the sidewalk in front of a residential lot in approximately 10 seconds. Photo courtesy Paul Tinkerhess.

After last year’s heavy snows, neighbors raised over $20,000 to put a down payment on a sidewalk tractor with brush and plow attachments, buy fuel, ice melt, and insurance, and train a team of volunteer drivers. After each  snow, SnowBuddy clears 12 miles of sidewalk throughout the neighborhood, as well as clearing the major walking routes to downtown Ann Arbor.  (Another team of volunteers, the “windrow patrol,” hand-shovels the sidewalk curb ramps at intersections where they’ve been buried by the city’s snow plows.)

The project is a testament to Water Hill’s neighborly sense of place (see also their annual music festival, held on dozens of front porches each May), but it also poses a serious question: if we want walking and biking to be real transportation choices in our communities, can we reasonably leave sidewalk snow removal to individual property owners?

Dozens of Michigan communities have formally adopted Complete Streets ordinances or policies, recognizing that thriving downtowns and attractive urban neighborhoods require infrastructure that serves residents’ varied transportation needs, from car, bus, and delivery truck to bicycle and pedestrian.  As SnowBuddy’s organizers point out, though, few of these Complete Streets policies extend beyond the construction of the infrastructure to its maintenance.  Transportation only works as a network: a 40-foot long stretch of ice where a single property owner has failed to clear their sidewalk makes a pedestrian’s commute dangerous, no matter how diligent the rest of the neighbors on the block.

Why is it that most communities consider street plowing among the most fundamental of public services, but leave sidewalks snow removal in the hands of individual property owners?  If we continue to have winters like this year’s and last, we may need better answers to that question as we strive to build attractive, quality places.

Michigan’s new crowdfunding law allows residents to make financial investments in their community through a unique and innovative platform. Known as the Michigan Invests Locally Exemption (MILE), the structure provides investors a return on their investment through an ownership stake or debt position. Any business can use the online funding platforms to raise money, and any Michigan resident can make investments.Crowdfund logo

Before MILE, almost all entrepreneurial investments in Michigan have revolved around venture capitalists and accredited investors (people who have a net worth of at least $1 million and an income of more than $200,000 – so only the top 3% of the population). Now, anyone who wants to support local business owners and entrepreneurs can have a financial impact on their communities. All of the risk of a traditional investment still applies, but with more people, literally, invested in a business, the more likely the business will have the support they need to succeed.

Michigan’s First Crowdfunded Business

tbc-inline6Tecumseh Brewing Company is the first Michigan business to be successfully funded through the new law. The two business partners received seed money from friends and family to get things going but needed to raise an additional $175,000 to open their doors. Because traditional financing is particularly challenging for new businesses to secure, they decided to give crowdfunding a try.

The owners got creative to spread the word about their new business and investment opportunity by inviting the community to a beer tasting event. In just a few weeks, Tecumseh Brewing Co. raised their goal of $175,000. With money secured and the community excited, the partners are preparing to open their doors in the coming months.

Crowdfunding Public Spaces

Patronicity is a crowdfunding platform, similar to Kickstarter or Indigogo, but Michigan-specific. Patronicity recently partnered with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) on a campaign to promote and fund public projects.

Midtown Detroit Inc's rendering of the Green Alley Project.

Midtown Detroit Inc’s rendering of the Green Alley Project.

MEDC will match funds raised on Patronicity, up to $100,000, for select public projects. Both municipalities and nonprofits can raise money to create parks, public art, trails, or anything else that activates a community space.

Midtown Detroit Inc., a community development nonprofit, is hoping to raise $50,000 to transform an alley on Second & Selden into an active public space with outdoor seating, sustainable landscaping, creative lighting, and welcoming architecture. With less just less than $30,000 to raise in 21 days (as of the morning of July 3), the campaign is off to a good start!

The opportunities are endless with Michigan’s new crowdfunding legislation. We’re confident the law will help the state attract and retain talent, promote entrepreneurship, and enhance personal connections to Michigan communities.


Additional Information & Supporting Research