Blue Economy Opportunities for Michigan Cities and Villages

Lake St. Clair, Placemaking, Blue EconomyIt’s time for Michigan to make some waves.

Maybe more than any other state, Michigan is literally shaped by the water around it. Culturally, economically, historically, and of course, physically. The Great Lakes define our 3,000 miles of coastline. More than 11,000 inland lakes and hundreds of rivers and wetlands nourish everything in between. Our water resources have always been at the top of Michigan’s most valuable natural assets, the lifeblood for our farming, fishing, shipping, manufacturing, recreation, and tourism.

None of that is new. What’s new is this concept called the Blue Economy—and by understanding what it means, and acting on it, we are in a unique position to become national and even global leaders in the emerging technologies, research, and economic development based on innovative and sustainable uses of our freshwater resources.

Not surprisingly, some of the countries with the least of this valuable resource are the ones making the biggest strides in “smart water,” from conservation and management innovations to water technology business development. Some of our Great Lakes cousins—Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Ontario—are also realizing their freshwater riches provide a unique advantage to get ahead of the pack in technology, research, education, and business development.

But no one—repeat, no one—is in a better position to do that than Michigan, the Great Lakes State itself. So what are we waiting for? The Blue Economy can drive a new round of job and wealth creation in Michigan. Michigan can provide the perfect home for research into smart and sustainable technologies to help solve global water problems. Our water assets can be a powerful placemaking strategy for economic and community development.

Sure, innovation is hard. It’s always simpler to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them. To ride the waves behind us, not make the ones ahead.

Famous surfer Bethany Hamilton, who was 13 years old when she lost her arm in a shark attack, had this to say about her sport: “I don’t need easy. I just need possible.”

There are plenty of people working on “possible” right now. Michigan Sea Grant is part of a national network of more than 30 university-based Sea Grant programs in coastal states across the country, administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) is a groundbreaking task force of 11 federal agencies working on the lakes’ most urgent environmental issues. Michigan has already leveraged state and local funds into $163 million in GLRI funds. Off the coast of Alpena lies the nation’s only freshwater National Marine Sanctuary, protecting 4,300 square miles of Great Lakes shipping history. In 2012, the state hired John Austin, director of the Michigan Economic Center at the East Lansing-based Prima Civitas Foundation, to guide our ship forward into the Blue Economy. According to Austin’s white paper commissioned by the governor’s office of the Great Lakes, water is already responsible for nearly a million jobs and $60 billion in the Michigan economy.

It’s time to quit dipping our toe in the water and jump in with both feet. We can be among those innovators out front making the waves that the whole world can ride into a prosperous and sustainable Blue future. It’s time to quit looking back, and start sailing ahead.

Like Christopher Columbus said: “You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”

* This blog is adapted from my column in The Review.


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Placemaking in Southwest Detroit

*I thought I would share this great piece from my very talented colleague covering our exciting placemaking work in Southwest Detroit.

Last week, the League’s Southwest Detroit PlacePlan project took an important step with a three-day charrette, a community-based design workshop. Southwest Detroit is known for great food, a lively atmosphere, and local art. Known as Mexicantown, Hispanic culture is evident in almost all aspects of the community.

Vernor is Southwest Detroit’s main street and is populated with densely packed storefronts, restaurants, and independent businesses. Due to Southwest Detroit’s proximity to Canada and the international bridge crossing, the area unfortunately has quite a bit of industrial land use and suffers from a high volume of truck traffic.

A Google map of Vernor with "the gap" highlighted.

As seen in the map above, Vernor’s vibrant commercial district is divided by about a half mile “gap,” created by complicated intersections, a former industrial complex, wide one-way roads, a viaduct, and an unnatural bend in the road. In an effort to better connect the east and west sides of Vernor, the League partnered with Southwest Detroit Business Association (SDBA) and Archive DS to collect resident ideas, concerns, and desires to reduce the gap and better connect the community.

Over the three-day process, ArchiveDS designers worked long hours in SDBA’s storefront office to get to know the community, collect ideas from residents, and create stages of potential improvements. Because development is often a slow, expensive process, ArchiveDS developed a number of solutions to more immediately improve the area, with long-term recommendations to look forward to when financing and leadership allow.

(Left) Current view of the Vernor and Livernois intersection. (Right) Proposed streetscape improvements: Bump-out parking, bike lanes, crosswalk, landscape improvements, and sidewalk bordering techniques. Some of these aspects are very low-cost but make a big impact on pedestrian comfort.

For example, Southwest Detroit has many independently operated taco trucks, ice cream vendors, and small, independent businesses. Currently these vendors are scattered across empty lots and sidewalks throughout the district.

To capitalize on this aspect of the community, ArchiveDS recommends building small sitting areas in underused parking lots for food trucks to park and sell on a regular basis. The endeavor doesn’t have to be highly organized, as it is at Mark’s Carts in Ann Arbor, but can be a simple space for residents to gather, have a meal, and enjoy the outdoors.

(Left) Current view of the Vernor viaduct. (Right) Proposed recommendations to make the space more pedestrian friendly: Local art, protected pedestrian/bike area, and creative lighting.

Larger, more long-term changes will certainly benefit the gap and ArchiveDS pulled in elements of the community into the recommended changes. As seen above, the viaduct between Livernois and Dix is a harsh divide of the east and west sides of Vernor. The team recommends incorporating local art, a clearly defined pedestrian/bicycle area, and creative lighting to make the space more comfortable and welcoming.

An imagined market in an industrial building near the Livernois and Vernor intersection.


A major problem in the identified area is a former industrial building. Although a clean up and improvements are necessary, the building could become a major asset to the community. As seen in ArchiveDS’s rendering, the building could be transformed into a indoor/outdoor market to benefit local business owners, residents, and visitors to the community. Transforming the space into a destination wouldn’t come without substantial funding, but identifying what the community wants is the first step towards changing the area’s future.

The Archive DS team is now writing a full report to share with SDBA and the Southwest community. The League will move to a supportive role as the community continues to identify priorities, coordinate funding, and gain momentum for the project.

To read more about the League’s placemaking work click here.

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Placemaking Is…

Placemaking is, at its roots, a response. A response to a modern pattern of city building that does not value the everyday experiences of people.

Human beings have been in the business of making cities since before recorded history. People built cities then proceeded to destroy, rebuild, sack, abandon, reimagine and resurrect them. Cities faced war, famine, floods, and  disease- always changing and adjusting to meet new challenges. The result was a Darwinian prototype of the modern city- resilient, connected, and structured, with enough room for a measure of authenticity.

In the 20th Century this changed. Unique, connected places gave way to blandness and separation. Bustling city streets lost out to congested freeways as governments attempted to create new places void of the real and perceived problems of the city.

Placemaking rejects sameness in favor of genuine communities that celebrate the significance of the human spirit.

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Resilient Communities Are Tough, Pliant, and Durable

Mayor George Heartwell, Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss and Asst. CM Haris Alibasic of Grand Rapids

Mayor George Heartwell, Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss and Asst. CM Haris Alibasic of Grand Rapids

Floods. Wildfires. Droughts. Hurricanes and tornadoes. Fuel shortages. Energy blackouts. Extreme heat and cold. You can get tons of information about what’s going wrong in the world —and even more opinions on who or what is to blame. Enough of both, in fact, to fill Noah’s Ark and sink it, all before you’ve loaded up a single lemur or humpbacked whale.

So forget all that for now. What matters is how we deal with whatever gets thrown at us, so that we survive and yes, even thrive, in the face of it. And that takes planning and preparation. That’s what resilient communities are all about.

When it comes to dealing with natural disasters, cities are literally on the front line—taking the hit full in the face from extreme weather events, environmental catastrophes, public health emergencies, you name it.  Wherever you have large concentrations of people and infrastructure and you have not planned for the unexpected, you have a critically vulnerable soft spot —like exposing your community’s jugular and just hoping nothing bites. And that attacker could be coming in armed to the teeth with blizzards, floods, and gale force winds.

Back before Katrina hit New Orleans, the popular attitude was to view natural disasters and their aftereffects as horrible but rare and unavoidable events. There was a kind of passive fatalism about it all, reactive rather than proactive.

We can’t afford that kind of attitude anymore. In the last few years we’ve seen that extreme weather, energy, and economic challenges have become the new norm. So how many times can Dorothy’s house land on the Wicked Witch before she learns to get out of the way? Whether you want to call it climate change, global bad luck, or the Wrath of Khan, it’s a brave new world out there, kids. Emergency planning takes a whole lot more than hiding out in a storm shelter under the city library. Good emergency plans include sustainability, proactive infrastructure investments, and continual updating with the latest information and innovations.

Here in The Review, you’ll find lots of great articles on a wide range of topics. You’re also going to learn what smart, proactive local leaders are doing to prepare their communities for the worst.

You’ll read about Whitehall’s “green road” that has effectively mitigated the city’s decades-long history of storm water flooding and industrial pollution. You’ll hear how the Land Information Access Association (LIAA) worked with Monroe, Ludington, and several other cities to develop resiliency plans. You’ll learn how the city of Grand Rapids came through a major flood in April 2013 with relatively little damage, largely due to preemptive investments in floodReviewwalls and storm sewer improvements, sustainable infrastructure, and a rapid-response emergency action plan. In fact, the city’s proactive efforts to protect itself and its residents from flooding and other extreme weather events prompted President Obama to appoint Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell to the Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience in November of 2013.

Looking for a way to start? The Resilient Communities for America campaign ( is calling on the leaders of local government “to take effective, wide-ranging local actions to prepare for climate change impacts, improve local energy independence, renew America’s infrastructure, and strengthen their economies in the process.” The campaign will also provide members with critical resources to help them achieve those goals. It’s worth a look…

…Because we don’t need to be Chicken Little yelling that the sky is falling down. But it helps to have those umbrellas handy in case it does. Just sayin’.

*This blog is adapted from my column in the May/June issue of The Review

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Crowdfunding Program Officially Kicks Off In Michigan!

From The League’s Press Release 6.16.14 Launches Michigan into National Movement

So what is crowdfunding? Why should I care about? How can a business use it? How can an investor use it? What do I need to know before I get started? And where do I go to get started?

There are a lot of questions about the crowdfunding law that started in Michigan earlier this year and a new Michigan Municipal League website not only answers these questions, but serves as a launching pad for potential investors and businesses looking to access resources to get started.

A one-stop website for all the crowdfunding needs of Michigan businesses and investors was announced today by the Michigan Municipal League.

The website,, is believed to be the first of its kind in Michigan and provides resources, how-to information and links to crowdfunding resources.

“We’re excited to launch this website to inform and connect Michigan, our communities, businesses and investors to the crowdfunding movement,” said Michigan Municipal League CEO & Executive Director Dan Gilmartin. “Michigan’s new crowdfunding law is so attractive for entrepreneurs and small businesses that we believe it’s a tool cities can use to attract and retain talent in a way that no one else in the nation can at this time. We want to maximize this opportunity for our cities and help them thrive and take advantage of the new local investment movement where it makes sense.”

The website has information about available training on crowdfunding and serves as a gateway for investors and businesses in Michigan who want to learn more through two companies performing this work, and on

Localstake is an investment crowdfunding platform that startups and small businesses use to raise funding from investors in their community. Its mission is to help growing businesses more efficiently and effectively connect with capital in their community. With investment minimums as low as $250, Localstake provides investors of all wealth backgrounds the ability to invest in what they know best: local businesses in their community.

“We are thrilled to bring Localstake to Michigan and give local residents the power to invest directly in their local businesses,” said Kevin Hitchen, one of the founders of Localstake.

Fundrise is a nationally recognized leader in real estate crowdfunding. Founded in 2010, with the goal of revolutionizing the way people invest in real estate, its platform gives people the power to invest directly in local real estate for a minimum of $100.

“We believe that if people can invest in places they care about, then together we can build great downtowns, better neighborhoods and stronger cities,” said Dan Miller, co-founder of Fundrise. “Our company is very excited to work with the League to help grow the state’s economy and create strong communities.”

Academic, business and public-sector experts around the world agree that investing in communities is vital to long-term economic development in the 21st century. This new economy is being built at the local level, growing jobs by ones and twos through entrepreneurs and small businesses. Crowdfunding helps create not only jobs, but places which people want to live, work and enjoy.

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