New study confirms economic impact of eight placemaking assets every community should have


It only takes a casual walk through downtown Ferndale for visitors to understand something fundamental about the community: Everyone is welcome.

Many businesses display rainbow flags or window stickers to indicate their support for the LGBT community. A public mural proclaims, "Remember You're Beautiful." A photo on the Facebook page "Ferndale Normal" includes a busking accordion player sporting a Spiderman mask. On event days, like Ferndale Pride, the Rainbow Run or Transgender Pride in the Park, attendees of all ages and races can be found in attendance.

"One of our goals is to make sure everyone who visits and lives in Ferndale feels welcomed and valued," says Melanie Piana, Ferndale's mayor pro tem. "Ferndale is known for that, and it is very visible."

As it turns out, that's good for Ferndale's bottom line. According to a new report from Public Sector Consultants, welcoming and diverse communities attract venture capital and create jobs. Sure enough, taxable values in Ferndale increased 4.22 percent between 2015 and 2016, one of the strongest increases among neighboring communities.

And while Ferndale's welcoming attitude feels organic, it hasn't happened by accident. The city has focused policymaking on diversity for decades, resulting in Ferndale's inclusion on the Human Rights Campaign's 2015 list of 31 All Star rated communities for municipal equality.

The report, "Creating 21st Century Communities," found relationships between eight community assets identified by the Michigan Municipal League and positive economic outcomes. While they aren't the traditional economic drivers often discussed in Michigan — tax incentives and business-friendliness — they have been critical components to the economic growth of cities that embrace them. PSC and the Michigan Municipal League hope to use these assets to change the statewide conversation on economic development and see communities benefit from leveraging them.

Some surprising economic benefits

The eight community aspects found to have positive economic impacts on communities are:
  • Physical design and walkability.
  • Community messaging and technology.
  • Multimodal transportation networks.
  • Environmental sustainability.
  • Arts and culture development.
  • Entrepreneurship.
  • A welcoming culture.
  • Education.

That some of these assets have economic benefits come as no surprise to economic development leaders. But others were news, even to public policy pros.

"I was not aware of the significant economic impact around welcoming communities," says Shanna Draheim, a senior consultant with PSC. "It's enormous."

The report found venture capital investment to be greater in communities with higher proportions of foreign-born residents, as well as gays and lesbians. In addition, for every 100 foreign-born workers with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, an additional 262 jobs employing U.S. natives exist.

That's quite the impact. Similarly, the economic outcomes of investing in the arts are eye-opening: People with lifelong exposure to the arts are more likely to start a business; for every job created from new demand for the arts, nearly two more jobs are created; and a correlation has been found between venture capital investment and clusters of arts workers.

"I can't say that I anticipated that," Draheim says.

Environmental sustainability is another surprisingly impactful economic driver. Grand Rapids, for example, has realized an annual net benefit of $76.14 for every tree in its municipal program, for a total benefit to the city of $4,694,139 each year.

The power of economic data

And then there are those assets the economic development world has long been hearing about, like physical design, walkability, transportation and entrepreneurship. It was still important to uncover the relationship between these assets and real economic impact, says Draheim, because they're often still not prioritized.

"For local governments, when making decisions about what they're going to invest in," she says, "there wasn't much clarity about the return on investment these investments really provide."

Now, there is. For example, the report found mixed-use, walkable developments generate 10 times as much tax revenue per acre, save almost 40 percent on up-front infrastructure costs and result in about 10 percent lower service delivery costs than sprawl development. On the multimodality front, residential property values increase near bus or transit stops, as much as 150 percent. A reviewed study revealed properties in Delaware within 50 meters of a bike path averaged $8,800 (about 4 percent) more than similar homes further away.

That fits with outcomes Ferndale is experiencing after adding visible, protected bike lanes.

"We now have businesses that say they are moving into Ferndale because of our bike lanes," says Piana. "We have families moving into the community because of these investments to protect the safety of our streets."

A new economic development conversation

So what are Michiganders supposed to do with this data? According to PSC, the answer is twofold. First, because of the critical role of revenue sharing, state government officials should understand the economic importance of these assets.

"As a state, we need to be investing in these resources if we want to have strong communities throughout the state," says Draheim.

At the community level, she adds, doing an inventory of existing assets and evaluating their needs will help local officials prioritize the eight assets to their benefit. To be clear, the report doesn't present the assets as an all-or-nothing proposition.

"They should not get daunted by having to invest heavily in all eight of these," Draheim says. "They absolutely should approach them as they make sense in their communities."

That said, cities studied in the report that layer multiple assets, like Ann Arbor and Traverse City, experienced increased benefit. So while not all eight are required for success, just picking one and tossing the rest aside isn't a winning strategy. It's all about determining what's right for each community. Building on existing assets, says Draheim, is a great place to begin.

Ferndale would be the first to agree. While diversity is already a community strength, officials are expanding their policy focus to attract a greater mix of ages and income levels, as well as pave the way for their diverse voices to be included in policy decisions.

"While we continue to focus on diversity, we are also focusing on strengthening inclusion," says Piana. "We are not done. We have work to do."

Every community in Michigan can say the same. And armed with the eight community assets outlined in the "Creating 21st Century Communities," they have a blueprint for how to keep growing.

This piece was made possible through a partnership with Public Sector Consultants.

Q&A with Dan Gilmartin,
Q&A with Dan Gilmartin,
Michigan Municipal League executive director & CEO
"Creating 21st Century Communities" began with the Michigan Municipal League's identification of eight community assets it believed had economic development benefits. Here's what MML executive director & CEO Dan Gilmartin has to say about what happened once MML handed them off to Public Sector Consultants to prove with data.

Were you at all worried that once Public Sector Consultants looked at the data, that maybe they wouldn't find those relationships you believed were there?

 Dan Gilmartin: [Laughs] No. We identified the assets after studying cities and regions around the country that are doing much better than our cities and regions in Michigan. We looked at the Bostons, the Seattles, the Portlands, the Austins — places throughout the country that are doing really well, and we said, "What do they have? Where are they concentrating resources?” That's where the eight assets came from. These were the characteristics we wanted to emulate from an economic development standpoint.

What in their findings do you think will surprise the general public the most?

Gilmartin: Some of this stuff is not intuitive. This goes against what is now about a 30- or 40-year political drumbeat that good economies are a direct result of taxes and regulations. That's all we've heard in Michigan for three decades. Now, when we look around and we research these places that are doing better economically, they don't beat us in those areas, they beat us in the things in this report.

What's an example of one particular community leveraging one of the assets in this report in a really creative way?

Gilmartin: There are a number of communities doing town and gown work, not just the major university and college towns but a lot of smaller cities. Alma College now has student housing right in the downtown. That's important because that's where the students want to live and it adds energy to the downtown.

The Mason County Sculpture trail in Ludington is one I like to point out. Ludington is an old historic community right on Lake Michigan, and it's got a high-end cultural trail full of sculptures that are both done by local artists and well-known, international artists. It draws people in from an economic standpoint, and it celebrates the culture of that particular part of the state.

What do you want communities to do with this report now that they have it?

Gilmartin: The cool thing about this is that these types of things lead to a healthier and a more fulfilling experience in a community. That's what makes it so positive. It's not the industrial age where you have choose a big auto plant over clean air. Now it's about that individual experience that you or I can have in a place. To me, it's a really important document that solidifies what we ought to be doing as community leaders.

This gives us the ability to go forward with an agenda that we're hopeful state policymakers will adopt and local leaders will use as blueprints in their communities.