MSHDA has recently issued a call for proposals to their Neighborhood Enhancement Program, with local applications due December 1.  Municipalities and 501(c)3 non-profits can apply for up to $30,000 or $50,000 (depending on size) in funding for local exterior home improvements or public space improvements.

In mentioning that funding opportunity, I want to point to the Oswego Renaissance Association in upstate New York as a great precedent for how these relatively small grants can be used for substantial impacts. The ORA has one of the neatest programs I’ve found via Strong Towns. As they explain,

Among other activities, the Oswego Renaissance Association makes small matching grants to clusters of homeowners who want to collaboratively improve the exterior of their neighborhood. This results in a huge return on investment, not to mention the value of neighbors working together…often for the first time.

This is a simple but profound process that unlocks neighbors’ confidence in their neighborhood.

The ORA’s mini-grant program supports small, visible investments and repairs on clusters of properties, helping spin up collective action and belief on blocks where residents may be suffering from despair about their neighborhood’s prospects. Where the hurdle to residents’ reinvestment is as much about their belief that it’s “worth it” as it is the dollar cost, a program like this can get everyone moving together and supporting each others’ efforts.  (Often, of course, these neighborhoods also suffer from larger economic shifts or histories of discrimination, challenges that require larger interventions and shouldn’t be overlooked in a search for quick fixes.)

MSHDA’s program can be used in exactly this way — to offer every home on a block some funding for exterior rehab, providing a visual and emotional impact that’s greater than what might happen from just one home being fixed up: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. As an example, Battle Creek’s past grantees Neighborhood Inc. note that their use of NEP funds for home repairs not only got those household engaged in additional projects, but generated a lot of attention from surrounding neighborhood residents.

The MSHDA funds are limited to owner-occupied single family homes, so unfortunately can only be used for a subset of neighborhood residences. A non-profit applicant, community foundation, or private sponsor could add funds to cover these gaps in eligibility; note that the municipality generally cannot use its funds for activities like private home repair.

Muskegon has been named this year’s Strongest Town, beating Kent, Ohio, in the final round of voting, and joining the 2017 champion, Traverse City, at the top of this international contest.  (Holland made the final four in the inaugural contest in 2016.)

And well they should be!

And well they should be!

We (of course) knew Muskegon was a strong contender: the city has been both creative and methodical in its work to rebuild downtown after the demolition of the Muskegon Mall in the early 2000s, to reorient and take full advantage of the Lake Muskegon shoreline, and to fill in gaps in its neighborhoods.

Just a few highlights of their recent work:

  • The city adjusted their zoning ordinance to re-open possibilities for small lots in neighborhoods where the historic building pattern featured, well, small lots. In undoing the inappropriately large lot requirements that had prevented new homes, additions, or other investments in these neighborhoods, the city explicitly recognized that one size does not fit all, “and that development standards should reflect each specific block type.”
  • Given a one-time payment from a paper mill that was closing its doors in 2009, the city could have thrown that money into its general fund or used it to do a one-time project—instead, recognizing the difficulty developers were having in getting financing, Muskegon dedicated the money as a revolving construction loan fund that could be reused year after year.
Saved from the malling of downtown Muskegon in the 1970s, this block now anchors downtown with new businesses making creative use of historic buildings.

Saved from the malling of downtown Muskegon in the 1970s, this block now anchors downtown with new businesses making creative use of historic buildings.

  • Muskegon was quick to take advantage of MEDC’s RedevelopmentReady Communities program for support in touching up their master plan, zoning ordinance, and development processes, and to use the League’s work in developer matchmaking to secure a partner for turning a vacant riverfront parking lot into new homes.
  • The “Love Muskegon” promotional campaign highlighted the community’s pride of place, mobilizing residents to show off their community, with the local community foundation offering $500 micro-grants to support neighborhood improvement projects. This organic effort complemented the more traditional county-wide marketing effort, “Watch Us Go”, itself a great example of regional collaboration.

Of course, the belle of the ball in terms of creative incremental development was likely the Western Market pop-up shops that the city created to fill a gap in downtown with affordable seasonal retail space. (It couldn’t have hurt the city’s standing that Strong Towns themselves featured this project just a few weeks before the bracket began!)

At Western Market, the city created 12 retail mini-shops at a cost of $30,000. The market offered small businesses a low-risk way to test out their storefront possibilities while filling a gap in the downtown streetscape.

At Western Market, the city created 12 retail mini-shops at a cost of $30,000. The market offered small businesses a low-risk way to test out their storefront possibilities while filling a gap in the downtown streetscape.

As the announcement of Muskegon’s champion status declared, “This Midwestern state is shaping up to be quite a leader in building strong towns!” We look forward to seeing who joins Traverse City and Muskegon in winning the Strong Towns hat trick next year.