Innovative Placemaking Sparks Economic Opportunity

Posted on May 12, 2014 by Lisa Donovan

This blog post is a response to the Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities group blogging event which asks, “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?”

Today”s mobile workforce is highly motivated by a sense of place. They seek out communities that suit their lifestyle before finding jobs and opening up businesses. This mindset makes “placemaking” vital to the long-term economic development of 21st century communities.

The Michigan Municipal League has identified eight essential assets that make communities the vibrant places that attract 21st century businesses and talent: physical design and walkability, green initiatives, cultural economic development, entrepreneurship, diversity, messaging and technology, transit and education. Our focus is on helping local officials identify, develop and implement strategies that will grow and strengthen these assets in their own community.

Many Michigan communities have already found unique ways to create a sense of place and boost economic opportunities for their residents. Here are just a few examples.


The sounds of buzzing saws, humming sewing machines and live bands playing everything from jazz to hip hop fill the air at Ponyride, a once-empty warehouse in Detroitis Corktown neighborhood. The project”s whimsical name reflects its commitment to providing a fun place where socially-conscious artists and entrepreneurs can pursue their passion and share their knowledge, resources and networks. Co-working space adds another dimension to the building, blending authors, nonprofits, technology companies and even a lawyer into the eclectic tenant mix.

Ponyride was born out of owner Phil Cooley’s desire to see how the foreclosure crisis could have a positive impact on the community. Thanks to an abundance of community support, rents are kept low, enabling tenants like Detroit Denim, Smith Shop and Edible Wow to focus on developing their crafts. In return, tenants have to put in some sweat-equity to build-out their own work space and give back to Detroit through educational programs and volunteering. Ponyride’s studios and co-working space are in such high demand that newcomers may have to put their name on a waiting list.

soup-serving-siteDetroit Soup

Sharing a good meal with neighbors, business owners and community leaders is the jumping off point for Detroit SOUP, a grassroots initiative designed to raise money and support for local projects. After everyone’s appetite is satisfied, four people are given the opportunity to present their ideas for a project that will make their community a better place – anything from starting a small business, to running an after-school program, to cleaning up a park. Dinner guests ask questions, share ideas and vote on the project they like best. The winner leaves with the $5 per person donation that was thrown in the pot at the door. Down the road, winners attend a future SOUP dinner to report on their progress.

Detroit SOUP dinners bubbled up from a small group of people who were trying to improve their community but needed their neighbors’ support to get the job done. Since the first monthly dinner in 2010, Detroiters have showed up in strong numbers to raise almost $67,000 for Detroit-specific projects. Winners have included 10 small businesses, 15 community clean-ups or beautification projects, 6 food or urban agriculture-related projects, 5 art projects, and at least 15 youth development projects.

adrian-main-street-inlineMain Street Community Partnership

Red Paint Printing is thriving and renters are adding homey touches to upper floor apartments in a significant, yet long-neglected building on Adrian’s main street. The new landlord, Main Street Community Partnership, has provided stability for the printing business, enabling it to expand its operations within the building. Plans have even been made for this retailer to acquire ownership of the space over time. And recent façade and structural improvements to the building have ensured its long-term viability and enhanced its appearance. As a result, the whole downtown landscape looks more appealing.

All of this was made possible by a group of four local business and civic leaders who were inspired by a presentation about the power of investing in your own community. They gathered the support of 18 more concerned citizens, who agreed to invest $2,000 each into a limited-liability partnership established to acquire and redevelop the property. Since purchasing the building, the group has expanded the first floor retail, improved the condition of most of the apartments, and found higher quality tenants. Thanks to the donated work of partners, the project has been able to exceed initial financial projections.


In early April, humongous paper-mache puppets march down Main Street to the beat of lively music in Ann Arbor’s annual FestiFools event. Throngs of spectators fill the sidewalks and are thrilled when these majestic puppets stop to interact with them. Art students and community members collaborate on the creation of the paper-mache creatures. And anyone looking for a chance to be creative is invited to add their talents for singing, dancing, puppeteering or just plain schlepping glue.

A Foolish Celebration – Bringing Art to the Streets from Michigan Municipal League on Vimeo.

The idea for the big-headed puppets sprang from the mind of Mark Tucker, for the “Art in Public Spaces” class he teaches at the University of Michigan. He saw the parade as an opportunity for people of different ages and backgrounds to work together and bring the arts to the community in a fun, whimsical way. Local government and civic group leaders provided FestiFools with the initial support it needed to get off the ground in 2007. Since then, this fun-filled, artistic event has become an annual tradition, drawing thousands of people onto the street to enjoy the foolishness.

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