Kalamazoo’s neighborhood activator plans to be very active this year

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

KALAMAZOO, MI — By the end of this year, at least half of the city’s 22 neighborhoods will have detailed plans that outline their wants and needs.
That is if Jacqueline Slaby has her way.

The City of Kalamazoo’s neighborhood “activator” expects to grow the number of communities that have established plans to nine by March and to 11 before the end of the year.
“We are in the process of getting Stuart and Westwood neighborhoods before the Kalamazoo Planning Commission in the next few months and (we’ve) been implementing a lot of projects in the neighborhoods that have existing plans,” says Slaby, who joined the city last March to help lead its community planning efforts. “That’s one of the things I’ve tried to strive for as I join the team -- looking at our existing plans and kind of doing an audit of where we actually are with those projects.”
A planning and communications specialist, she is not fond of having to explain the role of an “activator,” but she does it well.
“I work with each of the 22 neighborhoods for the City of Kalamazoo to put together their neighborhood plans, which are documents that help guide the growth and direction of where they live, work or play,” Slaby says. They are documents that people can use to help pinpoint specific areas of concern “and then we use that to organize our city budgets and prioritize the projects that we invest in. It helps those same neighborhoods as a group to figure out what other funding opportunities they should look at or ways to build community, (build) better relations between neighbors, and empower themselves to make a change in their own neighborhoods.”

Presently the Eastside, Edison, Northside, Oakwood, Parkview Hills, Vine, and Oakland Drive/Winchell neighborhoods have official plans. She expects to have the Stuart and Westwood neighborhoods set by spring, and for the Westnedge Hill, West Main Hill, and Milwood areas to develop plans after that.
“It really comes down to where they’re at in the mobilization of their neighborhood association,” Slaby says. “Do they have one in place? Is that a group that wants to do this? Can they sustain this work? And so through that, we just continue to work on engagement.”

She says the city continues is trying to engage residents and businesses. Through open houses, community picnics, online surveys, and other events, plans are shaped. “And then once that plan feels good by sharing it with the residents and them giving us the green light, “ Slaby says, “we take it before the planning commission.”

Each neighborhood plan then becomes part of the city’s master plan “guiding growth and development, preserving Kalamazoo’s unique character, and enhancing Kalamazoo’s neighborhoods,” according to information from the city.
The existing neighborhood plans, as well as the Kalamazoo 2025 Comprehensive Plan and its strategic vision goals, can be seen here. 
Slaby says she is looking forward to helping each neighborhood get at least two of their improvement/redevelopment projects up and going this year. In the Northside Neighborhood, that includes starting to engage residents in the design of a streetscape to complement a $10 million sewer line upgrade project that is planned for eight blocks of Ransom Street, between Westnedge Avenue and Walbridge Street. The design will include plans for better street-side landscaping, wider sidewalks, improvements to building facades, and the addition of cultural amenities such as historical markers to honor the legacy of businesses that have represented the neighborhood. 
In the Eastside Neighborhood, plans include the development of such projects as the construction of street-corner library boxes. Working with the Kalamazoo Eastside Neighborhood Association, Slaby says 10 of the boxes were recently purchased in kits. Slaby hopes to help the neighborhood engage adult community members to assemble them, then host sessions that invite youths to paint and decorate them. Those events may happen during the winter months so the book-sharing stands can ultimately be erected on posts in the neighborhood this spring.

Called “Jae” by friends and acquaintances, Slaby is a Battle Creek native who received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Growth and Structure of Cities from Bryn Mawr College in 2015 and a Master’s degree in City Planning from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016 (both in Philadelphia) before spending some time living abroad and returning to the Battle Creek area to work in city planning for that city as well as the City of Marshall. She recently ended a six-year term as a school board trustee for Battle Creek Public Schools.
Slaby says she studied architecture originally but developed a love for neighborhood planning and marketing. She has worked in marketing for global packaging and marketing firm SGK Inc., involved in packaging design for companies such as Kellogg and Pepsico. And with a partner has also operated a marketing firm.
Throughout her professional development, she says, “My one and only goal was to go back to Battle Creek because I wanted to come back to the community where I was raised, and do the work there.”

Less than a year into her work for the City of Kalamazoo, she is trying to improve communications with colleagues inside the city and with neighborhood residents throughout the city.
“Since I started, I’ve been really focused on what ways can we organize better (and) communicate better on internally,” she says, “so we can get things done faster and better.”
She says better communication and organization benefit community residents because it allows the city to implement what they want, and “We’re only as good as how fast our departments can respond to those requests and manage a project.”

She is studying how city departments communicate with one another and seeing what are best practices used by neighborhood organizations to engage people. There may be a bunch of resources, but projects don’t get done if no one knows about them. She says that obstacles could be any number of things, from getting funding to help people travel to work or obtaining housing rental assistance, to helping provide networking opportunities for professionals to planning programs for youth.
“With my background being planning and marketing, what I’ve always done in any role has been to focus on communications and outreach,” Slaby says. “I really want to find ways to build capacity among groups and communities so that people know what’s going on. I think that there are situations certainly where there’s a lack of resources. But I often find that there are a lot of resources. There’s just not alignment.”

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Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.