Cassopolis: A village reimagined

Imagine living in a village where the residents and neighbors described their downtown this way: Abandoned. Depressed. Rundown appearance. Unclean.

It happened. In Cassopolis, the county seat of Cass County. The village was once a thriving farming community of government activity and storefronts at the crossroads of two state highways. Then, for whatever reasons, things tanked.

“It was a ghost town,” recalls Steve Schroeder, who moved to the southwestern Michigan community from Iowa several years ago with an eye on retirement. “The downtown was pretty empty.”

That might have been the end of that story. 

But these same residents and neighbors also could reimagine Cassopolis. They envisioned: Green space. Parks. Walkable downtown. A renovated courthouse. A beach on Stone Lake, a nearly 160-acre lake at the edge of the village with no public access.

Lofty dreams?

Not at all. Walk through downtown Cassopolis these days and you’d be astonished at the differences. This village has reimagined itself.

Once lined with mostly empty storefronts, the downtown is now home to several new businesses, including a coffee shop and performance theater, two bars and restaurants and an antique store.  

New lights and banners help make downtown Cassopolis welcoming.The streetscape has changed as well, more welcoming to visitors and passersby on the state highways.  Changing LED street lights (that also emit Wi-Fi and play music) line the main street, along with digital LED banners (advertising community events), 2,200 new plantings and the sidewalks replaced with pavers.

“There’s always been a desire to improve the community but things did not start coming together until a few years ago,” says Donald Obermesik, a long-time member of the village’s police force who has watched various proposals falter over the years. “The pieces have to fall in place.”

Those pieces began to fall in place with the hiring of an interim manager, Emilie LaGrow, a private attorney, several years ago. She became full-time manager and has spearheaded efforts to transform the village. 

“What I saw as the first step is a manager who had a real aptitude and desire and the energy to seek out and go after grants, proposals to do things, and go look at the state and find money to help do things,” says Obermesik, who has been a Cassopolis police officer for more than 25 years. 

Also helping the village move forward were changes on the village council, whose members are elected every two years. New members embraced change and were willing to work together to help the village move forward on projects.

The village formed a partnership with Cass County and the Cass County Economic Development Corporation to create Imagine Cass, with the initial goal of revitalizing the downtown corridor. About the same time, the village also began working on its master plan. 

Officials tapped the expertise of the Michigan State University School of Planning, Design and Construction’s Sustainable Built Environment Initiative and Michigan State University Extension to help address planning, design and land use issues.  
Public hearings were held to hear what everyone -- residents, neighbors, schools, businesses -- had to say. Everyone was given a voice. 

“So many people showed up at these meetings --- in a small town -- that it really was a call to action,” says Wayne R. Beyea, director of MSU’s Sustainable Built Environment Initiative. “Local leaders and the village manager took that as a call of action and went to work. We set out action steps and they went diligently through that and pulled things together.”

A host of community, state and federal grants were successfully pursued to fund a variety  of projects. In all, from 2016 through 2022, the village received more than $18 million in grant funding.  The village worked with federal, state and other agencies, including the Michigan Economic Development Corporation Community Block Grant, MSHDA Neighborhood Enhancement Program, MDOT , MSU Extension First Impressions in Tourism, and the MSU Sustainable Built Environment Initiative.

“You have to strike when the iron is hot,” Obermesik says, recalling the ongoing efforts the past few years. “You’ve got to take the opportunity when things come together. That’s the biggest catalyst.”

The community reimagined a stretch of abandoned road along Stone Lake, creating a free community space with a new beach, food truck row, an amphitheater, custom-designed swing tables and benches, a fish-shaped bike rack and other amenities. 

Cassopolis created a beach and park-like amenities along Stone Lake.

“The beach is a big coup,” says Obermesik, who frequently runs into new visitors at the beach. “It’s something the community has wanted. People tried in the past and it was never developed.”

Also at the lake is a 230-foot-long ADA accessible pier with fishing areas, transient boat slips and an open area to jump in the lake. A custom-fabricated archway with memorable quotes serves as the entranceway. An ADA boardwalk -- with fishing platforms and lookout areas -- connects to downtown. 

“The changes have been huge,” says Schroeder, who opened a tavern in an abandoned building on the village’s main street. “You can see more businesses going in. These things are bringing people back to town. A lot of people are moving into the area because it's prosperous.”

Schroeder and his wife, Shelley, opened Holden Green about 18 months ago. They put a lot of money into renovating the late 19th-century structure and hope to add a reception hall on the second floor and a rooftop bar. 

“There was no bar in town when we got here,” Schroeder says. “Every village needs a neighborhood bar to socialize and have a good beer and sandwich. Ninety-nine percent of the people who come in here are amazing and they come from all walks of life. It’s been incredibly humbling.”

Those aforementioned community events also came to be. Free monthly community events including Beach Bash and Rock the Block concerts, held at the beach throughout the summer. Other events include the Stone Lake Ice Fishing Tournament and Christmas in Cassopolis Community Celebration. 

“There’s been a complete community transformation,” LaGrow says. “Our goal has been to create a community the residents are proud of. We have given them exactly what they have imagined. 

“Even though we are small and rural, we are exceptional,” she says.

Among the many new improvements in Cassopolis is this skate park, under construction.

The list of projects goes on, including:

+ Playground area designed by elementary school students. 
+ A skateboard park under construction. 
+ Benches created with recycled aluminum with QR codes to tell the story of their origin (Norway), thanks to a partnership with the village’s newest recycled aluminum business. 
+ A 500-acre SMART (Southwest Michigan Advanced Research and Technology) Park, home to Midwest Energy & Communications and soon-to-be Hydro Aluminum Metals, which plans to build an aluminum recycling plant.  

Solar panels are part of the village's SMART Park.The transformation has not gone unnoticed. 

Cassopolis this fall received the Michigan Municipal League’s Community Excellence Award, which honors and celebrates innovative placemaking programs and projects in communities across the state. 

Beyea, the director of the Sustainable Built Environment Initiative, says Cassopolis is a role model for other communities in the state because of its success in achieving a high level of public engagement and quick progress.

“They realized early on they were going to have to engage the community and they did. They mobilized. I’ve never seen it,” says Beyea, who has worked with more than 100 communities. “It was a high water mark for public engagement.”

Less tangible, perhaps, but rewarding are the comments from residents, businesses, and visitors, as well as the uptick in downtown business and the number of people showing up at community festivals. 

“It’s really nice to hear people talk about how great the place they live in is, that we’ve cleaned up the community and they can see us working hard downtown,” LaGrow says. “They have more pride in where they live. 

“It takes a village.”
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