How green placemaking helps build community prosperity

In northwest Michigan and elsewhere, placemaking that promotes green assets and infrastructure is helping to stimulate local economies and advance prosperity. But in what specific ways are placemaking and conservation tied to the economic growth and vitality of the region? Recent projects of the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy help make that connection and demonstrate economic impact in many ways.

Building Tourism & Ecotourism

Many businesses in northwest Michigan are directly impacted by tourism revenue. Enhancing green features and access to natural resources in local communities brings more visitors to stay at area hotels, motels, and resorts and to frequent shops and restaurants.

In Bellaire, Shanty Creek Resorts has an ongoing challenge to increase occupancy rates during the shoulder seasons--surrounding their main season, winter. Mountain bikers, on the other hand, are looking for trails to ride in the spring, summer and fall. The Glacial Hills Pathway and Natural Area project in Antrim County is a win-win for Midwest mountain bikers and local businesses. Glacial Hills is a 763-acre publicly owned block of forest and wetlands in Forest Home Township, one-half mile northwest of Bellaire. It contains an expanding trail network for hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, hunting and wildlife viewing.

The work of GTRLC and Explore the Shores at Arcadia Dunes and throughout Manistee County also focuses on ecotourism by creating a series of accessible destinations around local water amenities. Arcadia Dunes Nature Preserve in Benzie and Manistee counties has 3,600 acres of sandy beaches, dunes, forests, and grassland with 15 miles of trails. GTRLC is currently working in conjunction with Explore the Shores to design and build a universally accessible half-mile trail through the nature preserve to Lake Michigan.

With little commerce to build on to attract people to live, work and play in these counties, well-preserved dunes and forest attractions are important to the economic vitality of the county.

Attracting Talent

Placemaking activities at Glacial Hills and Arcadia not only help to retain local residents, but are drivers in drawing talent to the region. According to the MSU Michigan Prosperity Initiative, to compete in the new economy, communities must leverage their unique place-based assets and use them to improve quality of life and attract a continuing supply of knowledge workers.

Indeed, natural features are a huge draw. A 2012 MSU Land Policy Institute study showed that miles of Great Lakes shoreline, identified trails, miles of streams, and other green infrastructure variables have cumulative positive effects on both population and employment levels.

Impacting Property Values

According to an analysis by MSU Land Policy Institute, natural resources have an effect on tax revenue by boosting property values. Placemaking projects protect homeowners from detrimental land use while providing recreation, open space, and green infrastructure improvements. Additionally, people and properties both benefit from the assets that nature provides: flood protection, pollution filtration, water storage, climate regulation, wildlife habitat, recreation space, and research and education opportunities.

Reinvesting in Agriculture and Rural Development

Protecting local farmland also impacts the economy. In Manistee County, for example, GTRLC purchased farmland adjacent to Arcadia Dunes from Consumers Energy and then sold the land directly to interested farmers who had previously been leasing it on a year-to-year basis. The farmers are now reinvesting in the land as owners.

Furthermore, the community is working to support sustainable agriculture through farm-to-school programs with 70 farms in Manistee County; farm-to-school alone has saved some farms from going out of business. Agricultural redevelopment efforts continue as communities work to build better distribution networks for small farmers to supply local restaurants, stores, and food processors.

Value-added agriculture (turning fruit and vegetables into products like jam or salsa) is expected to build momentum and contribute significantly to future economic development in the region, helping both farmers and producers. In Acme Township, the Shoreline Fruit cherry-processing facility expansion within the Michigan Economic Development Corporation-approved Agricultural Processing Renaissance Zone attests to the state's belief that advancing agriculture and related industries will strengthen the economy.

Creating and Retaining Jobs/Business Growth

Placemaking projects that make a community more attractive to live and visit can stimulate business growth. In Acme, the jobs created by Shoreline on the developed side of U.S.-31, across from Acme's Bayside Park, will provide solid, year-round employment. The seven-acre park provides access to the shoreline, creates scenic viewing points, and connects to other protected tracts of land--a draw for visitors and residents alike. GTRLC is currently working with TART Trails on a plan to connect natural assets along the shoreline and build connections to local businesses.

In Bellaire, the Glacial Hills trail system is expected to boost occupancy rates during the shoulder season, resulting in fewer layoffs or shorter duration layoffs at Shanty Creek Resorts, which employs nearly 500 workers. Steady employment, along with a steady flow of visitors attracted to the Glacial Hills trails, means increased traffic for local businesses--from coffee shops, to resorts, to real estate offices--and less strain on public and private programs for unemployed workers. Jobs, of course, improve the community tax base and employees' purchasing power.

Promoting Other Indirect Economic Benefits

Public Health: Placemaking projects that create opportunities for physical activity and improve connectivity between residents can reduce chronic health conditions. This becomes more important as the population ages. Demographics suggest that by 2020, 52 percent of the population in northwest Michigan will be 65 or older, and 37 percent of that age group will have a disability hindering mobility. The universally accessible trail at Arcadia Dunes, and other accessibility projects, will promote better health for aging residents and others with mobility challenges.

Community Building:  Public, private, nonprofit, philanthropic and municipal partnerships formed while implementing placemaking projects stimulate problem solving and create a forum for ongoing community dialogue. It moves people from working within their small areas to working for the community as a whole. Explore the Shores, for example, has a leadership team of 60 organizations, including the DNR, GTRLC, sports fishing groups, the U.S. Corps of Engineers, state legislators, schools, businesses, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, and others.

Work around Acme and the U.S.-31 corridor also brought together public and private stakeholders to protect and enhance the shoreline. This type of community engagement contributes to civic health, which is directly linked to lower local unemployment; communities with better civic health also weather recessions better than those without.

Social Equity: Lastly, and not to be minimized, by improving access to natural assets, communities create spaces that everyone can enjoy, presenting opportunities for improved health and cultivating more stewards of Michigan's natural resources. Acme Shoreline Park and the U.S.-31 corridor is a good example; public access to the waterfront along a linear corridor the length of the Acme shoreline is rare. Everyone benefits.

Editor's Note: Writer Melinda Clynes works with Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy on a variety of editorial projects. She is a freelance journalist, an occasional contributor to Northwest Michigan Second Wave, and editor of Michigan Nightlight.
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