Blog: Andrew Clock

Andrew Clock is the new director of the Ypsilanti Heritage Festival, a free community festival taking Place in Ypsilanti's Riverside Park, Depot Town and Downtown since 1979. Andrew is also the founder and director of the Water Street Trail Project, an effort to use vacant, city-owned river front property for a public recreation area, and a founding member of the Michigan Roots Jamboree music festival. He has made Ypsilanti his home on and off since 1998.

Andrew Clock - Most Recent Posts:

Say No to Small Government, Emergency Financial Managers

Ypsilanti is in a tough spot. Our city is facing a budget crisis that threatens to cut basic services, raise taxes, or both. Even with careful planning, even if we cut services and raise revenue, we still face the prospect of ceding local control to an EFM by 2017, and with it the very real possibility that we will lose local police, fire, even our parks and community centers, to a state-sponsored fire sale. And the biggest shame is we really have a chance to turn a corner.

Businesses are slowly coming back to our downtown. Long abandoned buildings have been rescued and transformed to lofts, and most of them are full. We have a thriving art and music scene. We have a major university that is working to build a partnership with the city after decades of animosity. We have a thriving and growing dining and nightlife scene, and an open and diverse community that accepts pretty much all comers.

Washtenaw County officials have seen the potential, and they have moved to help. By partnering with the city on state DNR grants they have helped bring a rebuilt public pool, and a pedestrian bridge spanning the Huron to connect to a new trail network to Water Street. That last investment alone will change the face of the city; it's the last link in a park system that will run nearly the entire length of Ypsilanti along the Huron River. And as a crown jewel of that park, a state of the art county recreation center and the infrastructure to support it on Water Street, the very vanity real estate project that has brought us to this financial crisis. With a little luck, it will be enough to make that property desirable to new developers.

We have a real chance. We have the things that young professionals want, and the housing prices that they can afford. But our schools are failing. We face draconian cuts to public safety and services. Our leaders tell us we need an income tax and debt millage just to stay afloat, on top of the highest tax rates in the county. It's going to be pretty hard to keep growing when we face those types of problems. I think Washtenaw County sees that, and they are trying to give us a bump in the right direction.

The state of Michigan, on the other hand, seems to only have one solution: figure it out or we'll do it for you. Older cities have been handcuffed; constitutionally mandated revenue sharing has been slashed. Tax credits that helped revitalize aging building stock slashed. Aid to schools cut and diluted even more by charter schools, which have now proven to be no better at education than public schools. Cuts to social services. Legislated union busting. Tax increases on the poor and elderly while corporate taxes are slashed. And the elimination of locally elected officials by state takeover.

Michigan is in better shape than it was a couple of years ago. The disease of free-for-all spending has come to an end. But all of the progress has come on the backs of our cities. It's like the cancer diagnosis you won't talk about. "I'm perfectly healthy, I just have a dozen or so tumors." We can balance the state budget all we want, it won't do much good if we're bankrupting everyone in the state to do it.

The people of Ypsilanti, the people of Michigan have stepped up. Groups like the Detroit Mower Gang and The Water Street Trail Project are reclaiming abandoned public lands. Community groups are stepping up to take over pools, community centers, parks, libraries, and all sorts of services that are the responsibility of the state. The DNR has even taken to asking for volunteer help to do maintenance in state parks. Churches and community groups are stepping in to replace the social services the state has eliminated. That's how we do things in Michigan. We won't be deterred, we won't back down. But enough is enough.

I don't buy into the ideals of small government, especially since that definition only seems to cover public services; when it comes to invading your privacy, women's health, or eroding public rights, supporters of "small government" don't seem to have a problem expanding government's reach. State government has time to pass laws to keep tabs on who's buying kegs of beer, the resources to try to figure out how to avoid adhering to voter initiatives passed with overwhelming support, but no time to help prevent residents of Flint, Pontiac, Benton Harbor, and Detroit from being disenfranchised and having the assets of their cities auctioned off. Is that really where our priorities are in Michigan? Now granted, I grew up in a family of public servant and union members, but that's not how I remember things getting done.

Just What is a Community Festival?

Ypsilanti, like a lot of Southeast Michigan communities, is pretty diverse. Our residents are a broad collection of race, creed, age, and interests. So, how does a community event cater to such a broad group of people? This has got to be one of the toughest questions I face as the director of the Ypsilanti Heritage Festival.

The short answer, to be honest, is I probably can't cater to everyone. But what I can do is try to marshal my limited resources to get as close to the ideal as I can. With the help of the steering committee and community partners, I feel like the possibilities are endless.

The Heritage Festival, I feel, is one of the last of the traditional breed of civic festivals. We are a free event, and we offer a chance for many local organizations to set up a booth, interact with the community, and hold their own fundraisers. We have some entertainment, a beer tent, carnie food, and everything else you would expect. The problem though, is that it's gone on the same way for so long it's started to lose its relevance. Everybody knows what they are going to get. Some people love our festival for that, some are tired of it and want something new. Maybe of all the challenges we have this year, that's the biggest one; how do we become more relevant to more people without alienating the people who love us for who we are?

We decided to start with putting the Heritage back into the festival. The historical aspect of the event has faded over the years.  The historical encampment with re-enactors faded away, educational programs became less important. There were still aspects of historical education; the historic home tour will always be a fixture, and last year's World War II exhibit was fantastic, but, as it turns out, people really do want to learn more about the history of Ypsilanti.

 We are lucky to have a very strong History committee, and they have chosen to focus on  Chautauqua, the tradition of using oral history, re-enactment, music, teachers, and culture to teach history. Our program will focus on the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, and will coincide with the dates of the surrender of Detroit to the British. In fact, our historians tell me that the American Army may well have retreated to a place near Godfroy's Trading post, the settlement that later became Ypsilanti. I think it's fantastic, and I hope I have time to hear some of the speakers myself! Maybe more important, I think it will give the people what they want, the heritage back in their Heritage Festival.

History has never been the only driver of our festival. It has always been about the community, and the organizations that help make Ypsilanti what it is. That's something I want to build on, and I hope to bring more local organizations into the fold, and involve them in a bigger way. I want to see Community Records LC3 and 826 Michigan presenting programs for kids and teens, I want to see Eastern Michigan University all over the place, Ypsilanti schools too. Our museums, clubs, organizations, veterans, and houses of worship of all stripes. Nat Edmunds, our founder, has pointed out to me that bringing these groups together was the whole point of the festival, and that isn't lost on me. These groups are the fabric of Ypsilanti.

Something else that our festival has always been about is a good community party. One thing I have learned in my years in Ypsilanti is we do like to have a party. To that end, I want the best beer tent and entertainment in town. Local bands, puppet shows, fire breathers, dancers, and anything else from Southeast Michigan that seems like it would be fun and draw a crowd. School reunions, private gatherings, or any other reason to get together are welcome too. Now, I'll admit, when it comes to entertainment I consider Detroit to still be local, but don't get me wrong, Ypsilanti will be well represented. I mean, really, why bring the people together if you can't have a good time?

I hope we have the answers. I hope that we can produce a festival that makes our residents proud. Something that a new visitor will be impressed with and our life long visitors will be comfortable with. Somewhere all of the folks and Ypsilanti feel comfortable and want to mingle. I think we have a pretty good handle on it, but I hope you'll come be the judge.

Who Should Hold the Keys to the City?

Like everyone else in Michigan, the Ypsilanti Heritage Festival is facing hard times. Attendance has been down and so has revenue. It's getting harder and harder to find donors and sponsors. You have to start asking yourself if there is still value in free civic festivals, and if it's even possible to maintain them as free and open.

I honestly don't know the answer to the second question. The deck is stacked against us, to be sure. Ypsilanti is in dire financial straits. A declining tax base and drastic cuts in state revenue sharing, combined with the debt of the failed Water Street development scheme has crippled us. Our schools are deep in debt, and proliferation of charter schools has made the situation more dire. We have the highest tax rates in Washtenaw County, and there is both a debt retirement millage and income tax proposed for the May ballot. Even with those increases, we face the very real possibility of having an emergency financial manager imposed on us, which would essentially eliminate local government. But we are still lucky by Michigan standards; we saw it coming and have already cut services to the bone.

The city's financial situation leaves our festival in the interesting position of being a civic festival that isn't supported by the city. That's not to say that the city doesn't go far out of its way to support us, they do. It does mean that we have to pay for every service we need. Park rental, police and public works services, and special event permits, even a $1,000-dollar a day capital improvement fee. City fees are the single largest budget item, and are the number one reason it's hard to keep things free. Now we have the added challenge of losing Michigan's charitable giving tax deduction, making it harder to raise the funds we need to keep the festival alive and free.

Even with all of those fees, Ypsilanti is not accepting any more large festivals, and is considering restricting or canceling existing ones if the tax measures don't pass. There simply won't be enough staff to cover it, they say.

I say if that's the case, if we have to give up the very things that make our city great, let's turn over the keys to the Governor right now. Why are we fighting to keep local control if we have to give up everything we love about our town anyway?

The answer to that first question I proposed, is there value in large-scale civic events, that's a solid yes. Festivals give communities a chance to come together. A chance to meet new people and learn about your community. Or maybe just a chance to have a good time. They bring residents out of their homes and visitors into the city.

I guess to me, the question is, do we really want to give up the things that make our cities unique, that bring us together? Is that really how we build a better, stronger Michigan? I don't like that answer. There has to be a way to make our cities financially viable without losing the things we love about them. Otherwise, what's the point?

How Did I Get Here Again?

I got into the business of festivals by accident. A few years ago, an old friend who had just moved back to Ypsilanti from California approached me about helping him create a music festival here in the city. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Putting on what became the Michigan Roots Jamboree taught me a lot about about what it takes to build a large scale public event. There were aspects I never even imagined; complaints from the neighbors, last-minute failures, and politicians who seemed like they would have more important things to do. And that doesn't take into account the nuts and bolts of putting on a festival. It's insanely hard work, and chances are it's something you do in addition to your full-time job.  Ask me in the months leading up to the festival if I'm having fun, and I will not hesitate to laugh. Ask me after, and I'll still tell you it wasn't any fun, but everything I got out of it was.

And that's the thing. Putting on a festival isn't going to change the world or make you rich (it definitely won't make you rich) but it is going to introduce you to people from all across your community. The more open your festival is, the better. I've met musicians, artists, puppeteers, fire eaters, poets, writers, organizers, gourmet cooks, politicians, business leaders, moms, dads, kids, some of my best friends, and probably even an enemy or two. Not just that, but you are in the business of making those people happy, and that is a rare opportunity – not to make them happy like "Here's your ice cream," but to have the chance to provide an escape, a vacation, even if it's only for a couple of hours. It's a chance to see some old friends in the beer tent and show the kids something neat in the art displays. As hard as the work gets, and no matter how frustrated you are, there is always a chance to sit back just for a second, and watch people enjoying themselves. That makes everything worthwhile. Or close enough.

So, now, I find myself as the head of the Ypsilanti Heritage Festival, an event with some 30-odd years of history, and expectations, behind it.  Like a lot of other civic events, let's face it, like Michigan's cities in general, we face a struggle. Attendance has been down and so has revenue. I have to find a way to be a leaner, more cost-efficient festival, to add attractions that will bring in new visitors, but not chase away the folks who have been coming their whole lives. And I have to do it with a new group of people whom I haven't worked with before, and who are new to the festival too. This time around, I don't have the luxury of trying to target a certain audience. I'm throwing a party for everyone in a very diverse city. It's a much bigger challenge on every level. To be honest, it's a little bit scary.  But it's going to be a lot of fun. Sooner or later.

Post 4 - Michigan Roots Jamboree: Politics, a name change, and pride

Performing or promoting music on a local level is not nearly as cool as you may be led to believe. That's not to say it doesn't have it's rewards. You might get a pitcher of beer, or a burger. Sometimes you make enough money to almost cover what you spent on beer, food, gas, posters, hand bills, strings, batteries, time and effort.  Living the rock'n'roll lifestyle is rarely easy or free, despite all efforts to pretend otherwise.

Not that any of this has ever stopped anybody from making music.  Let's face it, to some of us there is nothing more rewarding than spending countless hours and money we don't have on producing and performing music. If you're in a band, hey, at least you get to play, and it's called playing for a reason. If you promote, you get the privilege of dealing with the club owner or manager,  who has a 50/50 chance of being an outrageous jerk, and dealing with the artists, who are, well, colorful and particular, as a general rule.  All without getting to play.  I know I make it sound glamorous, but seriously, putting on a really great show is a reward all it's own.  Even if it's you and five other people listening, dancing, appreciating what a good band can do, it can be totally worth it.

Even with all of this knowledge on how hard it can be to produce local music on a small scale, I was immediately drawn in to the idea of putting on a large scale music festival in Ypsilanti.  My friend Don Sicheneder had hatched a plan for a small bluegrass festival, and with the help of Erik Dotzauer and the Depot Town Community Development Corporation, it had grown into a full blown, two-day, two-stage, local music extravaganza featuring some of the best bands in the area.  It was to be a not-for-profit festival, with any proceeds going back to the DTCDC for investment into other projects around the city.  It was to be called The Ypsitucky Jamboree.

Then, the festival wound up being called the Jamboree, then the Michigan Roots Jamboree.  Along the way to the new name, there were city council hearings and human rights commission hearings.  There were accusations of racism.  There were things said that I still can not believe I heard from otherwise reasonable adults, let alone members of government.  The end result was not only a name change for the festival, but a not-so-flattering-for-Ypsi story that was picked up in the national media.  There was also Ypsilanti City Council's action to cancel a standing contract with the DTCDC for management and maintenance of Riverside and Frog Island Parks.  The cost of this action to city taxpayers has still not been disclosed to the public.  Evidence would point to a high number; the DTCDC had been chipping away at ten years worth of deferred maintenance, had helped to upgrade lighting, electrical, and structures in the park, even helped to provide free wireless internet in cooperation with Wireless Ypsi.  In the first maintenance season since the contract cancellation, the weeds have grown taller, flood damage has been poorly addressed, graffiti and trash have increased.  But we didn't use Ypsitucky, a word that is supposed to be the excuse for all of these actions.  At least a lot of the bands playing got good, funny, songs out of it.  

Sooner or later, we got back to work producing the festival.  Putting on a music festival is a complex job.  Our volunteer staff is over 200-strong.  Providing security, working with bands, cleaning up trash, selling tickets, you name it, there needs to be a volunteer for it.  While I wouldn't call it easy to line up and manage that many people, those who step up tend to love it.  It comes back to the whole idea that music is fun.  It's fun to listen to, to watch, to make, to create.  People who have never picked up an instrument in their life can be a part of it by volunteering. Your staff can make or break your festival, and ours made the Jamboree.  Like so many other things in Ypsilanti, we couldn't make it happen without the help of the community.

So far, our venture has been a success. Our first year, we very nearly broke even, the second, we made a very small profit.  That is well above the curve for young festivals.  In our second year, we added urban camping in Frog Island.  I don't know of any other city music festivals in the region, maybe the country, that can boast that.  We have incorporated painting, puppets, dancers, and fire performers.  Everything has been peaceful; there have been no fights and very few problems of any kind.  The only people thrown out for any reason have been gatecrashers.  Most importantly, we have brought scores of people into Ypsilanti and shown them a great time.  We've provided them with local music, local art, local food, and local beer, and been rewarded with huge smiles from all involved.  We've made our share of mistakes, but we've learned from them, too.  You can't make everyone happy, but you can take care of quite a few.

We are already starting to plan for the 2011 Michigan Roots Jamboree.  We plan to expand our music offerings as well as bring in more art and performance.  We hope to expand our cooperation with local clubs to have more music after the festival closes for the evening.  After the success of our trial run, camping should be back too.  Once again, so many people will pour countless hours of their free time into making our little festival  unforgettable for everybody who comes to visit us in Ypsilanti that weekend.  And when it comes to creating music, that's what really counts.

Post 3: Spearheading the Water Street Trail

Creating a recreation trail on Ypsilanti's Water Street Property started out the same way a lot of great ideas the bar. 

After spending the evening talking about local issues and having a few gin and tonics at the Tap Room, I was walking home thinking about the challenges that face our city.  The possible development of Water Street and its drain on City finances had been a topic of discussion on local blogs, and it occurred to me that everyone yelling about it and throwing around blame really wasn't getting us anywhere.  It struck me that if we wanted to see something positive happening with the area, then maybe actually, you know, doing something about it, might be a good way to start.  I knew there was an existing trail and a lot of open, wilderness-like area back there. With the coming demolition project, all 38 acres would be vacant.  An urban wilderness, waiting to be explored.  With that thought, and a post on, The Water Street Trail Project was born.

The basic idea, I thought, was simple.  We would take an empty piece of property on the banks of the Huron River, and using a network of vacated roads, abandoned sidewalks, and well-worn walking paths, create a trail that would wind through the property along the river.  We would use all volunteer efforts to raise any funds we might need and do all the work.  The main focus of the project would be to create an inviting trailhead at Michigan Avenue, a place to act as an entrance and introduction to the site.   In the end, a huge vacant lot would be put to public use and we would finally be able to point to something positive happening with a place that has been so much trouble for the city.  Maybe, too, by showing that the residents of the city saw value in the land, we could help a potential developer to see value in it also.  Easy enough, right?

I have to admit now, looking back, it probably did seem like kind of a crazy idea.  "Hi, my name is Andy, and I'd like your help to turn this recently reclaimed brownfield and abandoned street into a nature trail."  Fortunately, there were some city hall employees who were looking for just this kind of project, something to utilize this huge, city-owned property while permanent development was being sought.  They pointed me in all the right directions.  

First, I was introduced to the Friends of the Border to Border Trail.  This group works to support the Washtenaw County-wide trail network and organize hikes and clean up days. It turned out that Washtenaw County had long been eyeing that area for a Border to Border route, and the Friends saw the value in using a volunteer effort to help convince County Parks and Recreation to move ahead with the plan and move the B2B Trail off of local surface streets.  Our motives were different, but our goals were similar.  They sent me on to speak to Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation, and they too saw value in the project. Things started to take on momentum of their own and the Trail Project went from one man's crazy idea to a community effort.

I have to give credit where it is due.  The city of Ypsilanti, and more accurately, Bonnie Wessler, from the city planner's office, made this project possible.  Following closely behind are Bob Krzewinski, director of the Friends of the B2B, Coy Vaughn of Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation, and, well, too many others to list here.  Bonnie was the city-designated person designated to deal with me and "that trail thing." She took to the project with enthusiasm and determination, helping show me what goals were realistic and how I could put them in reach.  She found a small grant from the Department of Community Health's Building Healthy Communities Project aimed at helping to improve walking routes in cities.  From there, Bonnie helped convince the company doing demolition and environmental cleanup on the site to build our new trailhead with just small amount of funds provided by the grant.  She is City Employee of the Year in my book.  

Bob has been my ally in publicity.  He has used the Friends of B2B to talk about the project and draw in volunteers who just want to see more trails, people I never would have come in contact with.  Coy Vaughn gave weight to our cause by expressing Washtenaw County's support for the project.  The truth is, at any point, any one of these groups could have written me off as another loud-mouth, crazy local.  Instead, they supported my idea in every way possible.  Really, it feels like all I've had to do is some talking, some writing, and sign the Adopt-a-Park papers.

So here we are. Nine months after making a proclamation that we could, should, and would make use of the Water Street Property, we have reached our initial goal. We have our Michigan Avenue trailhead.  Our volunteers have hauled out trash and beaten back the brush and weeds all the way to Waterworks Park.  There is serious talk about a pedestrian bridge to link the area with Riverside Park, a plan that would create more than a mile of continuous public riverfront in downtown Ypsilanti.  Our new trail is a little rough, but it gets the job done.  More and more people are using the area and marveling at the wilderness they find.  For the first time in years, maybe decades, there are stories in the news talking about something positive on Water Street.  And all it really took was a little effort and a lot of talking.

Post 2: Long Live Ypsi!

I am from Ypsilanti, and I'm proud to say that. It took me a long time to realize all of the great things this community has to offer, and it never ceases to amaze me. I guess, to some degree, I had to wait for the city to become more of what I was looking for. Or maybe I just had to grow up a little. Either way, no matter how many times I tried to move on, Ypsi drew me back.

Like a lot of people here, I'm not originally from Ypsilanti. I wound up here by accident. I moved here from Monroe, not because of school or a job, but because my (much older) roommate and I both worked for the same company outside of Detroit, and Ann Arbor seemed like a better place to hang out between commutes. And so, we moved to one of those faceless apartment complexes along Washtenaw Avenue and settled in. We had an Ann Arbor address. We were clearly moving up in the world.

I didn't know much about Ypsilanti. I remembered seeing a big, brick water tower, and I knew EMU was there because that's where my friend James went to school. That was it. But the more people I met, the more I found myself drawn in. I left the old roommate and Ann Arbor address behind and moved into an apartment off EMU's campus. I'm not going to lie; it was a lot of late nights, parties, and doing things that I probably shouldn't have. It was also a whole lot of fun. The friends I made in those misspent days have lasted well past our wild youth. The things I experienced shaped the rest of my life.

Somewhere in there, I got tired of Ypsilanti. I was in my early 20s, it was a new century, and I, and a lot of my friends, felt stuck. There were only so many 40s you could drink, only so many shows you could attend, or classes you could take. So I struck out to see what else I could do, and to try out some new places. I spent a couple years living aboard a boat in Lake Erie. I met a girl, fell in love and got married. I took a "great" job that moved me to Iowa. I still kept touching base back in Ypsilanti, but I was headed out of Michigan and I was never coming back.

That's not exactly how it turned out. Iowa was miserable, the job not so great, and the marriage on life support. We limped back to Michigan to try and salvage things, but it was too late. I tried living in Detroit, tried going back to Monroe, but nothing really worked out, especially on the job front. Once again, Ypsilanti pulled me in. I still had friends here. They propped me up, gave me places to stay, were patient while I found work, and helped me put the pieces together again. Maybe most importantly, my friends brought me back into the art, music, and social scene, and urged me to get involved. It probably seemed like a good way to get me to stop moping around on their couches.

Getting involved was easy; Ypsilanti was still the same small town I left, and everyone knew everyone, or had at least had had a drink with them before. The music scene was as strong as ever, and now there was art and artists everywhere. It seemed there was an art opening every week, on any available wall in any gallery, coffee shop, or bar you could find. I performed and booked music, and helped to produce art shows at a local bar with my roommate. It seemed like everyone had a band or project. Our neighbors wrote a zine, made "Ypsi Panties" and had just created a new DIY art festival called Shadow Art Fair at the Corner Brewery. Another old friend, just back from living in California for the last 10 years, told me about the music festival he wanted to produce in the park the next summer, and asked me to help. I was hooked in, and this time, I wanted to stick around a while.

There are a lot of reasons I've made Ypsilanti my home. Of course there is the art, music, and creative energy that has become a part of the community, the great places to hang out, the parks, the central location. But a lot of cities can claim those things. It's the people of Ypsilanti that give it its character, and most of them love this town, too. They may not all agree on what's best, but they will fight like hell for what they think is right, and I like that, even when I'm on the other side of the debate. And more often than not, the person who you couldn't stand listening to at that city council meeting, or had a 20-comment long argument with on is right next to you volunteering for P.R.I.D.E. Day or a summer festival. This town has been through a lot, had a lot of ups and downs, promises and disappointments, and we just keep rolling with the punches. Maybe that's why we're willing to take a chance on things that may seem a little crazy to people from outside our community.

Where else would the candidates for mayor agree to a public debate hosted by a marionette? What other city would shut down its two major parks for a weekend music festival with camping? Where can you find entrepreneurs turning commercial kitchens into a printing empire, an office building into an artist community? That ship sailed from our neighbor to the west a long time ago. In Ypsilanti you can afford a decent place to live, to go out and have dinner or drinks, or to be a little less "responsible" and a little more creative without the help of a trust fund.

Michigan is changing, and it will never again be the place it was when we were young. We can't expect the kinds of jobs, the kinds of lives that our parents, and their parents, did. But we still have the same grit, the same work ethic, and the same determination that's always been part of Michigan. Out of the remnants of our industrial past new ideas and new ways to build communities are taking root. In Ypsilanti, we're embracing that change. We're ready to reshape our community for the future. And I'm proud to be a part of it.

Post 1: The Model Volunteer

I never really thought of myself as the type to be involved in volunteer work, let alone leading volunteer efforts. To be perfectly honest, I'm kind of selfish with my free time. I'd always felt like I had enough going on to keep me interested and occupied. Besides, there were clearly better candidates. I have a tendency to spend too much time at the bar, talk too loud, cuss more than I should, and generally act in a way that is not consistent with the ideal for role models or community leaders.

What I've found over that last couple of years is that none of that matters. I was thrown right into the deep end of volunteer work when I agreed to become the volunteer coordinator for the Michigan Roots Jamboree, a not for profit music festival. My first leadership role in the community, my first real volunteer experience, gave me a staff of over 100 people to run a brand new event. It was a huge learning curve, extraordinarily time consuming and stressful, and the time of my life.

That experience also introduced me to Ypsilanti politics through the Great "Tucky" debate, which in turn brought me into more and more volunteer opportunities. It took less than a year before I had created my own project, an effort to build a recreation trail on Ypsilanti's Water Street Property. Suddenly I had to learn how to talk to leaders at the city and county level and to recruit a volunteer staff of my own. I had to create a mission statement, create interest, and find allies. I picked up what I could from my own very limited volunteer and political experience, and the rest I made up as I went along. In less than one year, with a lot of help, I was able to realize my initial goal. I'm proud of what my volunteers and I have accomplished, and I'm ready for more.

I think there's a lesson in my experience. I was typically lazy and uninvolved. Someone else would take care of it, someone else would be better at it. The truth is that the best person for the job is the person with an idea and the willingness to carry it out. Sometime it's just the person with some free time and the willingness to give it to a cause. I'm under-employed, under-funded, and still prone to occasional bouts of laziness and irresponsibility, but it hasn't stopped me from accomplishing good things in the community. I'm not special, I have no training that prepared me for the challenges I faced. I made it all up as I went along, and so far that has been good enough to get results.

In Michigan, we are facing tough times. Now more than ever, we need to take responsibility for the health and growth of our communities. Our state and municipal governments can't afford to take on the types of community development projects they have in the past. It's up to us as citizens to bridge the gap between funding and need.

If a poor, lazy, vulgar barfly like me can create and promote a project, recruit and lead a volunteer force, and produce positive results, any one here reading this can, too.