A Peek at the Upcoming Book, The Economics of Place: The Art of Building Great Communities

Here is an excerpt from the upcoming book, The Economics of Place: The Art of Building Great Communities, to be released in September. The book examines important civic actions happening on the ground today and provides readers with practical applications for making their ‘places’ better.

From the Introduction

(On) “the connectivity of people. 

A dense network of streets and buildings breeds human connection. People have known this for thousands of years, having evolved the concept from small villages to grand cities. We found that compact design and a mix of housing, commercial uses, and open space led to an increased livability for everyone. Street life was important. Neighborhoods had their own idiosyncrasies which fed the larger city’s own unique cultural landscape. Center cities acted as the hub of a regional wheel. Through centuries of trial and tribulation we had discovered a model that was both efficient and resilient.    

Then…we changed course. Urban development was largely replaced by a less dense variety; a walk to work was replaced by an automobile commute; and local merchants were exchanged for chain stores. All of this was accomplished in the name of civic progress; some of it worked, much of it didn’t. One area that clearly suffered was that human beings became much less connected to those around them. In the early years of the 21st century, we are coming to grips with how this dynamic impacted everything from innovation and commerce to cultural identity and quality of life.

Derived from a desire for change, the placemaking movement aims to create positive change on streets, in neighborhoods, and throughout the world.”

From the chapter about the City of Marquette’s transformation:

““They called it Bum’s Jungle, and that was someplace nobody was supposed to go. The girls never went, of course, but some of the teenage boys would go down to get one of the bums to buy their beer,” said Black.  “During the day they’d go begging door to door, and the women would feed them lunches. In the winter they’d vanish, I don’t know where, but when spring came, there they’d be again, like they’d never left.”

By the end of the 1980s, Marquette’s Lower Harbor had clearly outlived any remaining usefulness as a commercial shipping port. Once-crowded warehouses sat abandoned, roofs rotting and floorboards crumbling. Pilings from storm-wrecked docks stood rotting in the bay. Unused rail tracks and trestles rusted in place like industrial skeletons. Some cities might have simply given up, fading into grey ghosts of their former glory days. Not Marquette. If mining and shipping could no longer support the city, they would find something else that would. But first the city itself would have to become something else in order to attract that new economy.

It was time for a change…. (a) sense of public ownership enabled the city to move quickly and efficiently on the path to transformation, even amid the usual range of personal and political frictions found in any unit of government. Implementation was aggressive, and because the plan had such clearly defined goals, the city manager and staff were able to quickly identify and seize upon opportunities, reordering priorities as needed. Citizens offered support instead of blockades and because of that, they were able to see rapid, steady progress which further fueled their ongoing enthusiasm and support. Public confidence in the vision grew, civic engagement increased, pride swelled and the city found itself exponentially richer in social capital – a highly prized but often elusive commodity.

The first and most visible change was the clean-up of the cinder pond, an industrial waste site once used as a coal unloading facility adjacent to the first ore dock and furnace, where in the late 1800s slag was dumped into the water along with sawdust from a shingle mill. Since the old coal yard was no longer needed, owner G.N. Spear had offered it to the city in his will on the condition it be used for recreational purposes. The city purchased the parcel in 1977 for $300,000 using a mix of federal funds, matching local dollars, and philanthropic support from the Shiras Institute. The green space was finished in 1981 and Ellwood Mattson, a local banker, spearheaded efforts to raise the final $500,000 needed to complete the park.

At the time the property was purchased, some residents had scoffed at the idea. Who would use a park there? But it didn’t take long for the naysayers to become true believers too.

Located just north of the ore dock in Marquette’s Lower Harbor, the 22-acre Mattson Lower Harbor Park was dedicated on July 24, 1989.  The grassy open space area offers park benches, picnic tables, a period-style concession and restroom facility, a boat ramp and nearby breakwater, and a children’s playground with a large wooden play-scape built with community donations and volunteer labor. The shoreline bike path runs through the park and an illuminated walkway with period style lighting parallels the waterfront along the bulkhead. Fishermen flock to the park in the spring and fall for coho and chinook salmon as well as rainbow, lake, and brown trout.

In just a few years the park has become the city’s most popular location for special events, playing host to such activities as the Seafood Festival, the International Food Festival, Winterfest, and an ongoing schedule of concerts, fireworks, and other large gatherings. A lighted outdoor ice rink is located in the park during the winter months. The 101-slip Cinder Pond Marina, completed in 1995, is located immediately east of the park.

“Once they started doing their festivals down there, it’s been so successful everywhere down here,” said Black. “There’s probably something going on every weekend. The first year of Beer Fest I thought it was going to just be a local thing. They had under 1,000 people. The second year they went up. This year they sold out in presales and had 3,500 show up and it was raining…

…The Lake Superior waterfront is still the city’s biggest asset, said Black.

“If there’s a freighter coming there could be 50 or 60 people waiting because it’s so fascinating. We who live here take it for granted, but there’s no other place you can get up closer to an ore freighter. There’s a lot of places along Lake Michigan where you can’t even get a view of the water. Here it’s available to people and that’s huge. I think that’s why our tourism has a lot to do with the lake. It just has a different feel than any other place.”

Many of the Marquette South mountain biking trails have been in existence for at least 20 years, with new trails constantly being built. Currently, more than 25 miles of singletrack exist in the Noquemanon Trail Network just south of Marquette. The singletrack system has earned national acclaim as a premier mountain biking destination from Bike Magazine, Silent Sports Magazine and others. Efforts are currently underway to gain the coveted “Epic Trail” designation from the International Mountain Biking Association.

In the winter, snow biking is coming on strong as the latest recreational trend to hit the region, and Marquette is taking full advantage of it. The specially built bikes feature extremely wide, heavy-treaded tires; hence the nickname “fat tire biking.”

“The new winter market for us is definitely the snow bikes. For the last several years we just haven’t had the snow we used to up here; it’s narrowed down really to a few good weeks in February. So as the snowmobile group has narrowed down, we’ve looking to the snow bikers as the hot new thing,” said Black. “They now groom the south trails for them and it’s huge. At some point it will get too crowded and it’ll ruin the experience, so now they’re looking into it on the mountain biking trails on the west end of the county.””