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.

 

 

 

At this year’s Convention, we invited Scott TenBrink from the University of Michigan’s School of Information’s Citizen Interaction Design program to speak about engagement, and specifically online or app-based engagement tools. The CID team has spent the past few years working in Jackson, where students have tested innovative projects and learned valuable lessons about implementing in-person and online engagement strategies. With more than 50 people in attendance and great conversation after the session, we definitely thought the information was worth sharing with a wider League audience.

Engagement means different things to different people and there are many diagrams that try to identify and illustrate the many types of engagement. Scott shared a unique diagram, below, that he and his CID team created. Click here to see a larger version of the diagram.

engagement-pyramid-text

“It is a work in progress,” he said, and they’re still playing around with the hierarchy, but I think the types of engagement available to municipalities are identified well here.

Selecting an Online Engagement Platform

Many municipalities are eager to try out online engagement tools and apps as a way to enhance in-person engagement opportunities. Scott cautions that online engagement should never replace in-person strategies, but should only enhance other methods.

There are a lot of online tools available, and the list is changing daily. To give municipalities an idea of where to start, the CID team created this comparison table, which identifies more than 25 online platforms and the type of engagement they offer.

Scott also shared a list of recommendations and questions local leaders should consider before selecting an online engagement tool:

  1. Research your audience – who are they and how do they want to engage?
  2. Identify the type of engagement you want – use the pyramid diagram as a guideline.
  3. Identify your available resources (data, communication channels, staff, etc.) – review the process and resources necessary to implement your preferred engagement method. Do you have capacity and organizational infrastructure to implement properly?
  4. Start with a prototype – test out a product before you spend a lot of money. Make sure it’s doing what you hoped and you have the resources available to properly implement the method.

Continuing the Conversation

Many at Scott’s session were interested in learning more from their peers about online engagement tools they’ve tried and lessons learned from the experience. If you’ve tried out a product and are interested in being part of a user group discussion, let me know! The League would be happy to host and facilitate peer-to-peer workshops to explore topics like this further. Should we host a small event, start a Facebook group, or hold a video conference chat? Let us know how we can help keep the conversation going! Feel free to contact me at scraft@mml.org to let me know how you want to be involved.

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A formerly vacant downtown storefront is full of activity during PlacePOP in Allegan.

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Read the full report here.

Pop-up retail is a fun and creative way to activate and promote underutilized storefronts. In December 2015, we had the opportunity to do a pop-up retail PlacePOP project with Allegan leaders to create vibrancy, boost foot-traffic, and encourage economic growth in the city’s downtown. Through the work of the Allegan city manager, city staff, elected officials, and a strong group of community and business leaders, Allegan built off an existing downtown celebration and shopping experience, Festive Fridays, to host four pop-up retail spaces through the month of December.

Allegan is a city of about 5,000 people and is no stranger to placemaking. As a 2013 recipient of the League’s PlacePlan grant, the community has a strong relationship with the League and values place-based improvements. Through their PlacePOP experience, communities across the state can understand the impact of pop-up retail and learn important lessons from their experience.

Accomplishments

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Festive Friday visitors purchase goods from PlacePOP vendors in a formerly vacant downtown storefront.

Allegan PlacePOP clearly demonstrates the power of placemaking. Pop-up retail was an opportunity to enhance an already successful event by bringing new energy and excitement to the downtown. After December’s events, community leaders most involved in planning the pop-ups reconvened for a debrief meeting in January 2016. Here, and through one-on-one interviews with key individuals, the stakeholder group discussed the project’s short- and long-term impacts. Stakeholders agreed that they clearly met the expectations identified through the project’s vision and goals, and they identified a number of additional accomplishments:

  • Building owners showcased available storefronts to hundreds of prospective tenants and buyers;
  • Vendors and entrepreneurs tested products and business strategy, built clients, and met like-minded entrepreneurs working towards similar goals;
  • Building owners were able to show their investment and passion for the community while residents had a unique opportunity to get involved in a common effort.

More than anything, Allegan PlacePOP was a clear illustration to the community, visitors, and the state that the city is innovative, collaborative, and focused on place. Many small- and mid-sized communities would never consider implementing a pop-up retail project because they believe pop-ups can only be successful in larger municipalities; clearly that is not the case. This project displays Allegan’s unique focus on placemaking and willingness to creatively collaborate with residents and business owners to achieve a common goal. Shining light on initiatives like PlacePOP can help attract talent and businesses that will contribute to the city’s economic success.

Lessons Learned

Pop-up retail projects can happen anywhere. With Allegan leading the way, other communities can learn from their experiences implement similar projects in their city centers.

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    Festive Friday visitors write what they would love to see in downtown Allegan.

    It takes city leadership to get the project started, but it takes community ownership to get the project completed. Allegan’s city manager is a strong advocate for place and was able to rally the community around a place-focused project. The manager initiated preliminary discussions with the League and acted as host to get the right people in the room as he organized the first community meeting. This is a strong leadership skill, but the more challenging skill was illustrated as he quickly stepped aside to let residents take ownership of the project.

  • Use an external, neutral facilitator to inspire, rally, and bridge new relationships. The project was able to avoid political turbulence with the League, rather than the city, as project manager. The League’s knowledge on placemaking and illustration of examples from across Michigan served as a way to educate and inspire Allegan leaders that was slightly different than the internal perspectives residents hear more frequently at the local level.
  • Agree upon clearly defined project goals and objectives at the beginning of the process. At the very first meeting, the group discussed and agreed on the project’s vision and goals and took on tasks as soon as they left the room. With regular communication and check-ins, leaders were able to carry out responsibilities, while having enough ownership to get creative and take the lead on tasks that most interested them. This got everyone moving in a unified direction and set the tone for what it would take to implement a successful project.
  • Start with the right location and event. To succeed in pop-up retail, there has to be enough foot traffic that make it worthwhile for vendors and building owners. With “shop local” initiatives already in the forefront during the holiday season, Festive Friday proved to be a successful event to build on. Similarly, the location has an important role in the project’s success. Downtown Allegan is walkable, aesthetically pleasing, and safe so people were willing to walk from store to store. A more sprawling, car-focused part of town would likely be less impactful for multiple pop-up vendors and building owners.
  • Have fun. It’s clear that people in Allegan are driven to do what they enjoy; spending time with their neighbors, being creative, and supporting the community they love. This experience is what encouraged the community to step up and take the lead.

Read the full report on Allegan’s PlacePOP here and contact scraft@mml.org for more information about pop-up retail or bringing PlacePOP to your community.

We’re really excited to announce PlacePOP, our new placemaking & engagement consulting service. PlacePOP is a low-cost, high-impact approach to inclusive planning that communities can use to test ideas, engage residents, and strengthen support for place-based projects.

PlacePOP in action at the Boyne City PlacePlans event.

PlacePOP in action at the Boyne City PlacePlans event.

Working with local partners, the League will plan, promote, and execute an event that demonstrates how activating a space can catalyze a community. Large scale planning takes a lot of time, money, and resources, and often leaves residents feeling disconnected and unfulfilled. PlacePOP is a “lighter, quicker, cheaper” approach to planning that brings people together, improves public spaces, and guides future development. PlacePOP can:

  • Empower people to experiment with place as a way to improve their community
  • Build local capacity and tests creative ideas to move planning projects forward
  • Promote interest in a specific, underutilized area
  • Educate local stakeholders on the impact of quality placemaking
  • Engage a wide audience of residents, visitors, and local stakeholders to share ideas, give feedback, and build ownership that guides capital improvement projects

There are a ton of examples of how communities have used temporary, tactical placemaking to guide local planning. For example, communities can:

  • Use pop-up retail to test demand and build buzz around a vacant storefront
  • Activate an underutilized lot using temporary outdoor furniture and family-friendly activities to see if the community should build a permanent pocket park
  • Improve walkability between two key areas to see if it changes people’s patterns
  • Use art, music, lighting, and seating options to create interest in a public space

Some PlacePOP History

Kids share their ideas at the 2014 Berkley Art Bash.

Kids share their ideas at the 2014 Berkley Art Bash.

We started brainstorming the idea of PlacePOP last year, after working with the city of Berkley on a place-based downtown planning project. Through previous planning efforts, the city identified a downtown intersection (12 Mile and Robina) as a potential catalyst for economic development. The city and elected officials wanted to engage residents and collect ideas of what “could be” in that area.

We worked with a steering committee of residents, the DDA, business owners, elected officials, and city staff to lead an impactful engagement event during Berkley’s annual Art Bash. We rented patio furniture, displayed local art, put out sidewalk chalk, and programmed the space with a yoga class in the middle of the afternoon. Most importantly, we asked people to brainstorm how they wanted to use the space. We collected a ton of ideas and the city was blown away by people’s interest in doing something dramatic, like closing the road to become a pedestrian plaza.

“Our city has several catalytic developments in our master plan, and thanks to the League’s efforts, we are making significant progress in achieving one of our highest priority projects,” said Steve Baker, a Berkley councilmember and an active leader on this project. “Placemaking is even more vibrant in Berkley thanks to the MML’s support!”

Collecting  feedback on draft designs at the 2015 Berkley Art Bash.

Collecting feedback on draft designs at the 2015 Berkley Art Bash.

Berkley residents and visitors will soon see these efforts come to fruition since the city is currently working with a consulting team to come up with detailed schematics on the intersection’s improvements.

Because we saw so much value and impact in this work, we decided to go big or go home. We bought a trailer, filled it with furniture, games, and engagement materials, and started incorporating PlacePOP into some of our PlacePlans projects (check out what we did with Boyne City last month). We also worked with the city of Lansing and local stakeholders on a really fun project just last week which focused on the Capitol Avenue corridor. Check out details on the project and pictures from last week’s event.

How PlacePOP works

The beauty of PlacePOP is that each project is unique since it’s 100% tailored to the community For example, communities can simply rent the trailer and its contents for under $1,000, or we can lead a deeper project with engagement, event facilitation, and a project report. Generally speaking, the process is as follows:

  1. Re-imagining a parking space during Convert Capitol Ave in Lansing.

    Re-imagining a parking space during Convert Capitol Ave in Lansing.

    Get started – We’ll meet with core stakeholders to identify project goals, partners, and opportunities. The group will explore options for the demonstration project, establish goals for the exercise, and explore expanded outreach, education, and communication opportunities.

  1. Work out project details – We’ll create a preliminary project plan with event logistics, assignments, materials, partners, activities, and communication strategies.
  1. Host the event – With the help of local partners and volunteers, we’ll facilitate the placemaking demonstration project during a planned community event. We’ll set up, staff, and guide volunteers to accomplish project goals.
  1. Debrief – We’ll host a debrief meeting with core stakeholders to recap the event, articulate lessons learned, and identify opportunities moving forward.
  1. Report out – We’ll prepare a report that summarizes the project’s process, feedback and data collected at the event, and recommendations to keep the momentum going to implement longer-term planning.

So let’s get going!

Doing engagement in Lansing during Convert Capital Ave

Getting great ideas in Lansing during Convert Capital Ave

If your community is thinking of ways to build capacity and encourage development, invite us over for coffee so we can brainstorm with you. Contact us anytime about bringing PlacePOP to your community:

Sarah Craft
Michigan Municipal League Project Coordinator
scraft@mml.org
734-669-6328

We’re looking forward to working with you!