To the people who’ve lived in them for generations, Michigan’s rural small towns are special in ways that only home can be.
But to continue to thrive in a changing world, these towns turn to “placemaking,” the art of identifying the unique assets of the community that showcase their quality of life and economic sustainability.
“Our communities are unique and having the ability for them to step into that space, to capitalize on the things that make them special, is one of the keys to ensuring that they are attractive to their residents, to visitors, to businesses," says John LaMacchia, director of state and federal affairs for the Michigan Municipal League,
He says it doesn’t matter whether the communities are large or small, capitalizing on those unique features and prioritizing them in future development is really the key to success.
“Whether that's utilizing a new mural on the wall to explain your history, or the revamping of the dark alley into a bright, friendly place that attracts the food truck — all of those things matter ultimately, at the end of the day, and those are there to both serve … those who may want to spend a day or two, or a week, or a month or lifetime in your community," LaMacchia says.
How are Michigan’s small downtowns working to improve their cores to attract new residents, businesses and tourists?
Examples abound. They range from acts as simple as setting out fresh water for visiting pedestrian’s dogs to ambitious multi-million-dollar park projects.
Last fall Ironwood was one of 14 projects, programs, and initiatives vying for the statewide 2022 Community Excellence Award, the Michigan Municipal League's most prestigious honor.
Ironwood, a community of about 5,000, was no stranger to the competition — 10 years ago the city won the award for its Railroad Depot Park project, the revitalization of a railroad depot into a park. That plan called for merging city blocks, adding a pavilion, playground equipment, landscaping, volleyball courts, and other amenities in an effort to promote health, history, and recreation.
The park now serves as a trailhead for non-motorized and motorized trails crossing the region, and the Historic Ironwood Depot houses the Ironwood Chamber of Commerce and the Ironwood Historical Society.
Ironwood’s entry this time around built upon that start, with Ironwood’s Downtown City Square, a project that “has created a gravity point in the middle of the downtown,” according to its entry documents.
The City Square creates a central downtown gathering space, and features a permanent outdoor stage, splash pad, gas-lit fire pit and tables, electric car charging station, and serves as a trailhead for the Miners Memorial Heritage Park Mountain Bike Trail System.
The historic small-town’s geographic compactness means that there is a multiplier effect as one entity feeds into another, says Michael Meyer, Ironwood Chamber of Commerce director and Economic Development Corporation chair.
The public space embraces the city’s "Find Your North" theme with activities that represent the natural environment — a splash pad to represent Lake Superior and the many waterfalls of the region, kids bike park to represent the area's outdoor adventure trails, a fire pit to symbolize those north woods campfire experiences, and a large soundstage, which hosts musical and dance performances.
The City Square serves as the "Finnish" Line of the annual SISU Ski Fest Cross Country Ski Race, where 800 racers finish in downtown Ironwood.
One of many community events in Ironwood, Plaidurday brings people together. Ironwood is also home of the iconic Stormy Kromer brand.
Bringing people to the center of the community supports local businesses, artists, and organizations and has stimulated the expansion of the City’s First Friday Summer Concert Series. Ironwood’s Summer Emberlight Festival celebrates regional and national arts and culture, and its musical performances, film festival, native arts demonstrations, and unique “art in the park” exhibit draws in both regional and national visitors.
These sorts of public gathering places in the downtown create an opportunity for people of all income brackets to experience the arts without financial burden.
“Ironwood is a rural city which is rapidly finding ways to attract new residents,” he says, “through both the beauty of its natural landscape and the livelihood opportunity that the new digital ‘work at home’ economy has made possible.”
Holli McPherson is the new executive director of the Main Street /Downtown Development Authority in Wayland, a community of 4,440 in Allegan County.
Wayland has participated in Main Street America
since 2010 and just renewed its two-year commitment to the program.
McPherson is working to secure grants to upgrade the facades of downtown businesses, which have become dated, in need of a facelift. She also plans to start a targeted recruitment of new businesses – needed services residents have identified in a survey. They include gift and floral shops, a steakhouse, bakeries, and a breakfast spot.
Wayland’s location off U.S. 131, between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, and its proximity to the expanding Gun Lake Casino, make it an easy destination for people to visit, she says.
Boosting the draw are projects designed to charm, such as the downtown’s addition of three murals — all created by the public — alley redesigns, small parks and even conveniently placed dog watering bowls, she says.
Creating ways for residents to be involved in their downtown is an important goal as well. Involvement “can be as simple as helping out for one event,” or even attending events.
Studies, she says, have shown that millions of dollars leave downtowns every year because of a lack of shopping or services. The biggest obstacle to retail expansion in Wayland is the fact that the downtown is landlocked, with no space to add retail spots by building out, McPherson says.
Some creative solutions may be up for discussion in coming months, she says.
The decline of small towns
Meyer cites several contributing factors to the decline in small town socio-economic health:
— The dwindling of industries such as mining and logging which contributed to the shrinking population, as young people move out of rural towns toward large cities;
— A late-20th century ethos that urged young people to become “white collar professionals” instead of entering skilled trades or starting their own businesses;
— Inflexible government policies institutions that worked many decades ago but are now hindering the formation of new businesses in a rapidly changing technological/economic environment.
— Since the 1970s, the formation of the “global” economic ideal and the outsourcing of manufacturing to other countries has resulted in the closing of many formerly rural located small-scale manufacturing enterprises.
An archway welcomes visitors to the new park and beach in Cassopolis.
— National “big box” mega-retail corporations devastated traditional small-shop businesses, leaving empty downtown buildings which remained empty for years and have become run-down and decayed.
Lastly, Meyer says, there is still an attitude among many folks who did not leave the small town that some big business from outside will come and save them. At the same time, he says, there is often a cultural attitude which is essentially unwelcoming of people who are different — city people, people from other countries, people of differing color and cultural traditions, etc.
Making a comeback
Many of these obstacles are gradually changing, and rural towns offer enormous advantages for sustainable economic development and positive personal lifestyle living.
Meyer says the cost of housing, utilities, taxes, and service industry activities are often lower in small towns; there’s less congestion which can reduce the stresses of daily living; there are often under-utilized commercial and residential buildings just waiting for repurposing, improvements, and new investment.
Michigan offers the additional perks of proximity to water and undeveloped natural areas, a powerful draw to people who have become disenchanted with urban and suburban living practices.
The practical ability to enjoy these advantages has been given a huge boost with the investment in high-speed internet— people can live in small towns and work, from home, at businesses based in large cities.
Meyer says small towns now have “the tremendous advantage created by evolving digital technologies” to bring people to live in small towns whose income is derived not from the town, but from an employer far away— with the effect of bringing income from the “outside” into the small town which benefits local businesses and service development.
“This is a very important development and has helped fuel the recent in-migration of younger folks to the Ironwood and other rural areas where internet connections are good,” Meyer says.
Elsewhere across the state
The principles Meyer summarized are at play in rural communities all around the state.
Pentwater, on Lake Michigan south of Ludington, was another contender in the 2022 MML Community Excellence competition with its Pentwater Park Place entry.
Originally built as a public works garage, the quaint building was transformed into the Friendship Center in the 1980s; after 30 years of use it was time for a makeover.
The community center, now named Park Place, was redesigned for multiple uses, including a business center for meetings, a flex area banquets and social activities and a cozy living room for relaxing.
The renovated center is now home to bingo, line dancing, chair yoga, euchre, book club gatherings and knitting groups and has been the site of wedding receptions, baby showers, school dances and countless meetings.
Park Place truly defines “Sense of Place,” the entry says.
With new lights, banners and pavers, Cassopolis has been spruced up for residents and visitors alike.
The Village of Cassopolis
, a small, rural community in Cass County, won this year's Community Excellence Award with its “Imagine Cass Project,” a project that aimed to transform the entire community.
That transformation included a redesign of the downtown streetscape with free wi-fi and music, a new beach, an outdoor amphitheater and concessions, a lakeside boardwalk to connect public spaces, new municipal complex, creation of the Southwest Michigan Advanced Research and Technology Park and a comprehensive overhaul on the image and pride of the residents.
“These projects are great examples of people coming together to make their communities places where people want to live, and that will create a positive impact for generations to come,” says Barb Ziarko, president of the Michigan Municipal League’s Board of Trustees.