Sustainability Planning and the Private Sector

With a new $3 million federal planning grant in hand, the “Mid-Michigan Program for Greater Sustainability” is setting out to deliver nine distinct projects to the region over the next three years.
It’s a tall order, underscored by the lengthy lineup of leaders at the press conference that kicked off the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-funded program. According to Sue Pigg of the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, the fiduciary agent for the project, more than 40 organizations have committed to supporting the effort.
With the word sustainability appearing so prominently in the name, you might assume that much of this $3 million will be spent on environmental initiatives. And you’d be right—lots of those green elements are there, ranging from a community energy audit—provided by Michigan Energy Options, a local non-profit that recently added solar panels to its hyper-green East Lansing facility—to improved street design and more.
But good business and environmental sustainability have begun to converge, and there are also plenty of items in the grant that should pique the interest of local developers and entrepreneurs.
Placemaking Projects
Brian McGrain, Ingham County Commissioner and treasurer of the planning commission, expects the project to “set the stage for the region” to be a more attractive place for private sector investors and developers.
Part of the reason is that the grant has the potential to deliver better placemaking—a buzzword that’s garnered Michigan some national attention since the Governor linked it directly to economic development in his first special message a year ago.
“If this [grant] money is spent well, then at the end of the project the region will see additional public and private sector investment in developing high-quality places,” agrees long-time Capital region homebuilder and emerging leader of a fledgling Michigan Great Places movement, Gilbert White.
Placemaking is a somewhat flexible term that suggests betters ways to connect parks and green spaces, cultural amenities, business districts, residential neighborhoods and transportation options in order to knit together a vibrant and rewarding physical space and community. The reason it’s getting so much these days is pretty basic: communities that do great placemaking appear to much more likely to attract talented and mobile residents. Fail in delivering “place” and those same people will head to Chicago or Austin to find it.
To get there, White would like to see a focus on arts and culture. “Every [placemaking] project I’ve seen that includes production and living space for artists is subsidized because they create more value,” says White. “There’s value to subsidizing that bohemian element that creates something greater than the sum of the parts.”
Another key to placemaking is connectivity—specifically, linking jobs and housing with a range of transportation options.
“We need to provide housing for the service workers where they can take the bus or walk to work,” says White. “The region lacks that connected workforce housing; what we have is all disconnected. Look at the assisted care facility at Lake Lansing and Saginaw. What’s that connected to? Nothing.”
Michigan Avenue Corridor
The Michigan Avenue Corridor becomes a laboratory of placemaking in the grant, and that means the 18 miles stretch from the Capitol to Webberville will get some extra attention. Local developers are excited about the opportunities.
“I would like to see continued growth and development and investment in corridor,” says real estate developer, Scott Gillespie. “It’s already such a vibrant area; anything we can do to help that going forward would be great.”
Asked how the public sector might support the corridor, Gillespie first suggests “incentives for things like cleaning up [contaminated] sites,” like the brownfield funds that are helping him turn a vacant gas station site at the corner of Shepherd and Michigan into a $1.4 million, mixed-use commercial and residential building.
Most importantly though, Gillespie says that opportunities like the HUD planning grant can help make sure “that the zoning is in place” for the type of development you want to see,” and help the region develop a “clear vision for what the community wants” for the corridor.
He’s also “very excited” and supportive of CATA’s push to put Bus Rapid Transit along the Michigan Avenue corridor. “I would love to see that happen. If it’s done right that, will only help promote development along that corridor.”
Community Engagement and Resource Alignment
Overall, the grant points toward a better integration of the region’s various housing, energy and transportation infrastructure efforts. Commissioner McGrain is particularly excited about the focus on creating a fair and affordable housing plan for the region, which he says, can only be the result of “engaging lots of the different people, initiatives and efforts that have been going on.”
Similarly, White suggests that a successful program will mean the whole community is “taking advantage of the opportunities that exist for more public-private sector partnership—opportunities to go in together to develop these projects. Because going it alone to create placemaking value doesn’t work.”
Community engagement will also be a driving force for folks like Julie Powers, Executive Director of Mid-MEAC, who will coordinate a community engagement fund through the grant, and hopes to use it to prepare more residents to sit on local boards and committees.
From the economic development side, Tom Stewart, managing partner at the Center for New Enterprise Opportunity in Lansing, also see value in better community engagement and more program integration.
“We support this grant,” he says, “because it mirrors our emphasis on empowering communities, inspiring collaboration and creating meaningful change. We’re looking forward to seeing the private sector more willing to partner with communities and participate more heavily in community building. I hope to see increased collaboration in our community—especially between government entities, the private sector, and community leaders.”
That move would help the Capital region keep up with trends. “From the federal level and especially from [Governor] Synder’s administration,” McGrain says, “it’s all about better coordination and alignment of resources.”
“It will be an exciting three years,” he says. “These are the cutting edge tools that are being rolled out here and in other regions,” and they “will make us attractive as a region, especially with regard to an improved quality of life.”

Brad Garmon is a former Capital Gains editor, new father and regular contributor to the Michigan Distilled blog.

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Scott Gillespie

The Michigan Ave Corridor

Tom Stewart at the NEO Center

Solar panels at Michigan Energy Options in East Lansing

Photos © Dave Trumpie
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