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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.