Guest Blogger: Tim Colbeck

Tim Colbeck is the executive director of the Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority (YDDA).  He has a bachelor's degree in geography from Eastern Michigan University and a master's degree in urban planning from Wayne State University.  A lifelong Michigander (or is it Michiganian?), Tim grew up in southwest Detroit, and while living in the state's biggest city he developed a keen interest in how cities function, or sometimes don't.  

For the last 10+ years, Tim has worked in some way, shape, or form doing economic and community development.  From retail site location analysis with the Kmart Corporation, to community and economic development in the city of Detroit's Midtown Neighborhood with the University Cultural Center Association, to downtown management with the Highland DDA and now, with the Ypsilanti DDA.   

Tim spends his free time with his family, wife Trish, and two young sons, Luke and Drew, watching baseball, reading comic books, and other general mischief.  

Let's Start Marching in the Same Direction

Conventional wisdom says that it is always easier to be "against" something rather than "for" something, but I dispute that.  In my career in the community and economic development field, you have to be "for" things to be successful.  The status quo never got anybody ahead.  Doing nothing ensures nothing will happen after all. I've embraced that idea and try to live it every day as the executive director of the Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority (YDDA).  

My job here with the YDDA (or in any other downtown development authority) makes it necessary to be a "Jack of all trades".  On any given day I could be doing anything ranging from picking up trash in a dumpster enclosure, meeting with prospective new businesses and entrepreneurs, making sure that our flowers are being watered, reviewing façade grant applications or presenting our long-term vision for the YDDA to community stakeholders, and all jobs in between.  This is not without its challenges, but I can honestly say sometimes I have the easiest job in the world.  Why is that?  Because I get paid to tell people how great Ypsilanti is.  I love Michigan, can't imagine being anywhere else.  I've been fortunate enough over the last 3-4 years to really explore the state with my family in a way that I hadn't before.  There are so many great towns in this state with unique restaurants, parks, shops, etc., and Ypsilanti stacks right up with any of them.  

In my better than 2.5 years here as the executive director of the YDDA, I've seen firsthand the love, passion, and commitment the people of Ypsilanti have for Ypsilanti.  We are often our worst critic here, pointing out our failings.  Sometimes we get a little too passionate too, but that can be a good thing when harnessed right.  I believe that the good things going on here by far outweigh any negatives.  It has been my genuine experience that when I am talking up Ypsilanti to friends, colleagues, and even total strangers, they like us.  We are unique and these people recognize it and appreciate it, even our cousins in A2.  As a matter of a fact, when I say who I am and what I do, I can usually expect some comment about how they recently spent an evening doing something somewhere in our town and had a great experience.  How about that?  People like us! I was thinking about writing about all of the great little places there are and things to do here, but I realized I don't have enough time and space to list them all!  Do you like to eat? We've got you covered! Do you like to shop? That too! Culture? You bet we do!

So now I know that people like Ypsi too, that is half the battle to economic development. But how do we use that to our advantage?  Planning is key, and to start planning we need a great vision.  I have some really strong ideas of what I would like to see, or what means success to me.  

The first and best thing I would like to see us (the YDDA community) embrace is fully implementing the National Main Street Approach for the DDA districts.  For those of you unfamiliar with the National Main Street Program, it is a creation of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  It is a historic preservation-based economic development tool that is volunteer-driven.  That means that it relies on committed volunteers to give it muscle and doesn't just rely on waiting for the local municipalities to do something.  That is not to say that our local government shouldn't be a part of the solution, but it says they are not the only party.  This system embraces the entire community and gives everybody who is willing a say in what we are doing and where we are going.  And more importantly it leverages the most resources, both financially and personally, by reaching out to the community and inviting them to the table.

The Main Street model uses a Four-Point Approach to how a downtown organization manages itself.  These focus areas are organization, promotion, design, and economic restructuring.  These can be called whatever you like, but the basic ideas are:

  • Organization is the consensus-building part, handling outreach and advocacy for the downtown, fundraising and finding volunteers.
  •  Promotion creates the positive image of the downtown through advertising, marketing and events that capitalize on what we have.
  •  Design keeps the Main Street in top physical shape, creating a safe and inviting atmosphere by preserving and maintaining our physical elements, both public and private.
  •  Economic restructuring strengthens the downtown's economic assets by providing a balanced business base, supporting entrepreneurs, and better coordinating public-private partnerships.
This model allows us a lot of room to make it fit our community; it is not a cookie-cutter program.  This is why I'm such a fan. It allows us to be us but still gives a strong guiding framework to work within.   One example of a program that I would like to explore and create here in Ypsilanti would be a business advisory team, or peer-to-peer support where some of our more successful businesses mentor start-ups.  This could be assisting them on how to market and promote themselves using social media or window displays, or it could be on how to train staff for excellent customer service, or even how to create a strong business model/plan using a visioning process.

Ypsilanti has many great events throughout the year.  Spring through fall, there is always something fun and exciting going on in one of the DDA districts to attract visitors.  I would like to see a specific event that focuses on our great businesses.  Something where all of the businesses open their doors to the public and say, 'Hey, check us out!'  There could be street entertainment and events organized around this, but the focus would be to highlight what each business has and celebrate its uniqueness.  Each business would stay open late one night and have something to display that specifically highlights their business and attracts a lot of foot traffic to our districts.

But of course, as the executive director of the YDDA, it isn't just about what I think.  My job requires me to dig into the psyche of my board of directors, my constituents (the businesses, residents, and visitors of all of the DDA districts), the elected officials, the students at EMU, and anybody else that has an opinion about any of the DDA districts.  Again, no small task.  

Everybody has an opinion and they don't always match up.  So what do we do? We dig into these opinions and find the universal truths.  Some folks may not want a chain store opening up in downtown, but some do.  Some may not like another bar, but some say the more the merrier.  But everybody wants to see people downtown, walking, shopping, having a great time.  Everybody wants the DDA area to look good.  It's the details that need to be worked out.  

That is what a good vision will do. Rather than saying the things we don't want, I'm trying to coax out of everybody what they do want.  I think there is a uniquely Ypsilanti point of view out there and we can build on that.  The big thing is getting everybody marching in the same direction.  I recently was told an important fact about a good vision.  

A good vision is one that 80% of the participants buy into, and 100% support (Thanks, ZingTrain!).  It is just about impossible to get everybody to agree to everything, but let's all get behind something.   Once we agree on what it is that we want to be, we can start making that happen.  This is a long-term process, but I think we all agree that we have made a great start.  Ypsilanti is going to be Ypsilanti, we are going to be fun, artistic, individual, and a place that you want to be!   I'll be the steward.
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