Small Communities, Big Success Stories

Communities are a lot like people. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are healthy and wealthy; others are struggling just to stay alive. Also—just like people—bigger isn’t always better. Yuri Gagarin, the first person to travel in space, was a mere 5 ft. 2 inches tall. Beethoven only had an inch more than that. Gandhi, Houdini, Charlie Chaplin…if size was all that mattered, this world would be a much duller, poorer place.

Here in Michigan, there’s no doubt that all our economic fates are at least partly tied to Detroit and our other major urban centers. But there are also plenty of smaller success stories to tell, and they all add up to a pretty big picture of Michigan’s hope for the future. These are also the stories that say the most about the vast majority of us. Our smaller communities are the biggest share of who we are as municipalities. A whopping 74 percent of our cities and villages have a population below 5,000. Of those, 35 percent are cities and the rest are villages.

Like former Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton (a mere 4 ft. 9 inches and 93 pounds!), our smaller communities may be small but they’re tough and capable, with unique assets and advantages. Anyone who ignores their potential is missing out on some of our best opportunities for future prosperity. With creative vision and strong leadership, they can respond to change and challenges as well as their bigger brethren, and can often see bigger impacts from smaller investments in a shorter period of time.

And that’s exactly what many of them are doing.

review-nov-dec2014-coverDowagiac (4.5 square miles with a population of just over 5,800) reclaimed its downtown by undertaking the behemoth task of relocating a state trunkline from downtown to a side street. The city and DDA gave the downtown a facelift, burying overhead lines and creating a pedestrian-friendly environment with public art in pocket parks all over the city.

Litchfield District Library may be one of the smallest libraries in Michigan, but it bested several much larger community libraries to win the 2013 State Librarian’s Excellence Award for the impressive way it serves its 2,400 patrons.
These are the type of things we need to keep in mind when we talk about economic development and revitalization in our communities. Even as Detroit’s bankruptcy continues to cast a big shadow on the world’s view of Michigan, countless historic downtowns throughout the state have held on and even prospered through these tough economic times. Main Street is back, largely due to innovative investments in placemaking strategies.

In The Review you’ll read about the first ten years of the Michigan Main Street Center and the communities it has impacted. Over $200 million has been invested in Main Street buildings, infrastructure, and public improvements. More than 1,300 new jobs have been created in Main Street districts. The building improvements alone increased local property tax revenues more than $3 million this year, while 250 new Main Street businesses are paying at least $3.1 million in annual sales taxes to the state.

Main Street successes include downtown living in Howell (population 9,489), with approximately 125 residential rental units in the Main Street district, located in the upper floors of two-, three-, and four-story historic buildings; and Hart (population 2,126), which re-energized its sense of community by transforming a former gas station site into a public green space and amphitheater.

*Adapted from my article in The Review