Blog: Tom Woiwode

How is Thomas M. Woiwode a champion for conservation? For starters, he has raised over $125 million in private funds for conservation purposes. Plus he's completed more than 300 conservation real estate acquisitions. He's worked for decades to preserve natural spaces, create greenways and otherwise make this a greener state, region and planet. He's our guest blogger this week to share his experiences and ideas to keep this ball rolling.

Post No 2: The Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan

It just dawned on me that I didn’t properly introduce myself yesterday. I work for the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. If you’re not familiar with community foundations, they are quite literally the philanthropic arm of the community. We support activities, programs and institutions to improve the quality of life throughout the region’s seven counties. We manage over 900 charitable funds, and last year awarded more than $45 million in grants to organizations throughout the region. In addition to grants, we offer education and training on issues important to the health and well-being of the region. In the past, these events have included seminars on safe communities, addressing the obesity epidemic, the implications of changes in the tax laws to nonprofit organizations, and many others. 

We develop special programs around particular issues important to the region. Some of those programs include initiatives that support arts and culture, environmental education, senior citizens, or creating endowments for nonprofit organizations. And, included in that category, is the GreenWays Initiative. 

The GreenWays Initiative, though, is an unusual one for us.  When the idea was first proposed eight years ago, it prompted a number of questions. It involved grants supporting capital improvements, and we typically didn’t make capital grants. It was our first direct involvement with municipal governments. It required a more direct engagement with potential grantees, both public and private, than had been our custom. It included an educational component that was much more active than any other educational series’ we had hosted in the past. At $25 million, it was by a significant margin the largest initiative we had ever attempted (at that time). And, the structure—a community foundation serving as a leading voice in support of the development of greenways—had never been tried, anywhere in the country. 

Greenways had been discovered and embraced elsewhere in the country. But this was a new issue, and an untested new model, for southeast Michigan. Not surprisingly, there were some serious questions. How will this function? How do we make sure our money is being spent properly? How can we get communities to work together?  How do we make sure the requisite knowledge and skills are out there? And perhaps most important, why should we do this and will it work?

That last question—the “why” in particular—caused some real soul-searching about what this would mean to the city and the region. Should we get involved in greenways because of experiences in other cities? Like Pittsburgh, where the mayor in the late 90’s characterized greenways as the single most important economic development program in the city? Or in Indianapolis, where an entire greenway is dedicated to art? Or in Minneapolis, where twenty percent of the entire campus population of the University of Minnesota—students, faculty, staff—bike or walk to the campus every day…year round? Or in Little Rock, where the Medical Mile, a mile-long downtown trail along the Arkansas River celebrates the health benefits of greenways? Or Denver, where, through intergovernmental cooperation, the region has used cooperation with the water management district to build an interconnecting network of 600 miles of trails that extend well into the suburbs? Or Indianapolis again, where a study by the local board of realtors showed that property adjacent to or near the main trails in the city was as much as 15-25 percent more valuable? Or Portland, Oregon, where the popularity of bike lanes has turned Portland into a biking tourism destination? Or Chicago, where, because of the availability of bike lockers at Millenium Park, bicycle commuting has skyrocketed? (Notice that most of the examples cited share the same weather we have.)

Well, maybe.

Or maybe we should be investing in greenways because of the doctor in Flat Rock who moved his clinic so it was adjacent to the greenway being built in that city, thus enabling him to use it as part of his health prescriptions for his patients. Or because of the greenway that was built connecting Henry Ford Community College and the University of Michigan-Dearborn to the commercial/residential district of West Dearborn, thus giving those two campuses pedestrian access for the first time in their 40+ year history. Or because of the hotel in downtown Rochester that markets its location along a greenway as one of its offerings. Or because of the 750,000 people who came down to the riverfront to enjoy General Motors Detroit River Days? Or because of the six communities along the Clinton River Trail in Oakland County, or the 10 communities along the Macomb Orchard Trail in Macomb County, or the 21 Downriver communities, that are collaborating—working together—to connect to each other, and to build better shared communities. Or because the $25 million GreenWays Initiative has generated an additional $90+ million in public investment, funds that came to southeast Michigan because of the development of greenways. 

Or maybe it’s all of those things, and so many more.