Visitor perspectives help move MI communities forwardIronwood has benefitted from MSU Extension's tourism assessment program

A new amphitheater, downtown outdoor seating, increased wayfaring signage and a more unified community are some of the changes the city of Laingsburg has undergone in recent years. 

And, according to Laingsburg’s clerk and treasurer Paula Willoughby, residents of this Shiawassee County community are all about it. 

“[The outdoor seating] is constantly full, and the businesses love them,” she said. 

In 2019, the city of about 1,400 residents participated in the Michigan State University Extension’s First Impressions Tourism Assessment (FIT) program, which works with small Michigan communities to offer objective, “first impressions” of their towns. These assessments are followed up by constructive feedback for improvement to be more welcoming to visitors, tourists and potential new residents.

“The program gives communities a snapshot, typically in the warmer time of year, of what essentially a group of people experience and see in their community for about a 24-hour period,” said Andy Northrop, who created and runs the program. 

The process generally takes between nine and 12 months. Communities begin by assembling a Community Leadership Team (CLT), a cross-section of leaders, stakeholders and other town representatives who are responsible for communicating results with the public and implementing change.

Then, like “secret shoppers,” FIT assesses communities through an anonymous group of five people who visit the place for a day and record their experiences. The team is made of people of different ages and demographics with little to no knowledge of the community to offer a fresh pair of eyes and varying perspectives.

The collective information is then organized into a report, which is shared with the public through a formal, half-day Community Report Forum.

“The argument that we make is that communities are a business,” Northrop said. “If you’re not projecting to your visitors ‘good business ethics,’ people aren’t going to come back … It’s about putting your best foot forward.”

For Laingsburg, about 30 miles northeast of Lansing, one of the motives for participating in the program was to figure out how to tap into the tourism market from nearby Sleepy Hollow State Park, which sees 300,000 visitors a year. But the subsequent changes also had a significant impact on the quality of life for its

The new amphitheater has become a popular spot in Laingsburg.One of the biggest takeaways was a need for more arts and culture downtown, which prompted the building of the amphitheater, among other things. Since its opening in 2021, it’s become a popular site for concerts, outdoor movies, plays and school graduations, Willoughby said.

But better marketing – especially digitally – was another area for improvement. 

A significant part of FIT is not just an in-person assessment of a location but a virtual one. Prior to visiting, team members research their locations online, as a potential visitor would, and consider an itinerary for the day.

New directional signs in Laingsburg.Laingsburg took that feedback to update the city’s website and increased promotional materials, including adding a QR code to fliers to direct people to more information online, plus additional wayfaring signage.

While the city is in the process of measuring the specific impact of the program, Willoughby said businesses have seen an uptick in Sleepy Hollow tourists and the results are palpable. 

“We learned how to really get a big group of people listening, and everybody [has been] pretty excited about the whole thing,” she said. 

Cass City, a village of about 2,500 in the Thumb, participated in the FIT program in 2019. And while the assessment found weaknesses in the community’s retail options, Village Manager Debbie Powell said they were surprised to learn people weren’t aware of Cass’s existing assets, like access to the river and the amenities of its municipal park.

The Tuscola County village decided to implement more wayfaring signs, which had overwhelming support from the community, Powell said.  

New directional signs in Cass City.“It was like the talk of the town for five days,” she said. “It was like, ‘Wow, these are great! Why didn’t we think of this sooner?’”

Since it began in 2015, FIT has worked with 21 communities in Michigan, with four more taking part in the program this year.

 After living in different countries overseas for more than a decade – where he gained a lot of experience as an outsider in communities – Northrop returned home and saw a need to help Michigan’s rural areas, which were struggling.

“[Michigan] was in a pretty rough state,” he said, “[There was] the 2008 economic collapse and the state has been bleeding people for decades.”

While “first impressions” programs have been going on throughout the country since the early 1990s, Michigan has become a nationwide leader and is assisting in creating similar programs both within the United States and abroad, Northrop said.

In 2020, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) got involved and began offering grants for its Redevelopment Ready Communities (RRC) to participate in FIT.  

Michelle Parkkonen, managing director of the MEDC’s Technical Assistance Programs, said FIT complements the mission of the RRC.

“Because communities that are participating in RRC are really focused on economic development and their customer and visitor experience, and the implementation of a community vision … FIT assessments are a great next step,” she said.

For some communities, FIT was a validation of existing efforts and offered additional tips that hadn’t been considered.

“We kind of know who we are, but we just want to get that expert opinion,” said Tim Erickson, a community development assistant for the city of Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula.

Ironwood, home to about 5,000 residents in the far-western U.P., had already been experiencing an upward trajectory in population and tourism growth when it underwent the FIT assessment in 2019. 

A mural depicting a chapter of Ironwood history.Assessors, however, identified a lack of diverse restaurant options and limited operating hours for businesses as weaknesses, which Erickson said was not something the village could control. They did, however, establish a monthly first Friday event in the summer with a concert series, art installations and vendors, which encouraged some businesses to stay open later. They also used the FIT assessment to justify more signage.

Since 2018, the Gogebic County community has seen a 30 percent increase in its 5 percent room tax for lodging – an indication of more tourism – and he expects the number to grow, Erickson said.

“Overall, what we’ve been doing has been working, and the FIT was part of that,” he said.

The village of Cassopolis underwent the FIT assessment in 2021, three years after establishing its Imagine Cass movement. That project has been a massive undertaking to reignite the city with a new downtown streetscape, a new beach and pier, an amphitheater and a lakeside boardwalk, among other changes. 

Alexis O’Flynn, who works in the village’s community development, said FIT helped officials recognize a need for more signage to make people aware of the changes, especially to mark its new beach, which is hidden from the highway.

“To us, it’s this exciting thing that just opened … but we didn’t realize that for people who are passing by, they probably don’t even realize there’s a beach down there,” she said. “So something as simple as putting up a sign that says ‘beach this way’ with an arrow is something that was pointed out.”

Cassopolis, the county seat of Cass County in southwestern Michigan, is also planning on adding a mural inside its viaduct – a tunnel that goes under the train – after feedback that the sight was unwelcoming. 

The program is targeted at small rural communities, but Northrop said they will do major destinations as well, scaling the number of assessors and the amount data accordingly. 

But for a small city like Cass, which never saw itself as a tourist destination, Powell said the program gave the community a whole new outlook.

“[All communities] have people who are passing through, they have family members who are coming to visit,” she said. “When you look at it from that perspective, through that filter, you see a need for programs [like FIT].”
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