By Teresa Gillotti and Amanda Edmonds
Location: Ypsilanti, Michigan
Like many communities in Michigan, Ypsilanti is working to build a new story. This small, dense, urban community is 15 miles from Detroit Metro airport, 10 miles from Ann Arbor, and home to Eastern Michigan University. Located within a stone’s throw of the Willow Run factory, it is also home to at least two shuttered manufacturing plants. Historically, Ypsilanti was a blue-collar working town. But, like many Michigan communities, the dominance of the automotive industry as the economic center of a community is fading. Local health care systems and universities are the major employers. Since 2001, Ypsilanti lost close to 1,600 manufacturing jobs; considering the city’s population at that time was 22,362, it represented 7 percent of the total population. Through the Michigan Municipal League’s Center for 21st Century Communities ( 21c3) pilot project, Ypsilanti chose to pursue an entrepreneurship focus—further exploring how to nurture the seeds of entrepreneurship and move Ypsilanti into the new economy.
As part of the 21c3 pilot project, the city worked with the League and Michigan State University Extension (MSU-Extension) to assess existing entrepreneurial resources and efforts, identifying possible gaps. The Ypsilanti business community benefits from such institutional supports as the SPARK East business incubator, EMU College of Business Entrepreneurship program, Ypsilanti/Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce, and the Small Business Technology Development Center (SBTDC)—all located in Ypsilanti’s Historic Downtown.
Sometimes a Supporting Role Is More Important Than the Lead
In 2009, Spur Studios popped up in Ypsilanti, providing affordable studio and work space to bands, graphic artists, painters, and others, without public funding. The city considered finding ways to further support arts entrepreneurship, but felt an opportunity for this pilot project was to support the burgeoning agriculture/food business entrepreneurship that has been growing through the efforts of local, grassroots nonprofit Growing Hope.
A food- and garden-based nonprofit who founded and manages the Downtown Ypsilanti Farmers’ Market (DYFM), supports local community and school gardens, educates young people about healthy food, and helps low-income families grow food at home in raised bed gardens. Growing Hope has been rooted in Ypsilanti since 2003. Growing Hope realized that the DYFM was not only a source for healthy food, but also a business incubator, and its vendors represent a socio-economically diverse mix of growers, bakers, crafters, and other food-based entrepreneurs, many of whom are very small in scale. By partnering with the city through the League’s 21c3 program, and leveraging support through a grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), Growing Hope was able to expand its business development and marketing support for these vendors.
Teaching Business Practices to Market Vendors
In 2010-2011, Growing Hope partnered with the SBTDC and MSU-Extension to facilitate 11 workshops for current and prospective market vendors. Topics were chosen based on feedback from an annual vendor survey. Workshops included Market Vendor 101, Writing a Business Plan Parts I and II, Business Finances and Accounting, Financing Your Business, Cottage Food Law, and Web Marketing and Social Media. Eighty-seven percent of participants agreed that the workshop allowed them to acquire practical skills and/or knowledge to manage their business more effectively and efficiently. At least three new businesses were launched by attendees in 2011, and many more expanded.
Funds from 21c3 were also used to create a vendor directory. The colorful, professional directory highlights growers, crafters, bakers, and other vendors, and provides an introduction between vendors and other businesses, in hopes that their (often very small) businesses would gain some further legitimacy in the eyes of new potential outlets, including small retail and larger distribution outlets. We distributed much of the first printing of the directory in July 2011 to the vendors themselves. For many who don’t even have business cards, let alone brochures or other marketing materials, the directory provided them professional material to solicit additional business.
Further distribution to restaurants and retailers, as well as an annual directory update, are in the works for 2012. Other MEDC funds supported creating permanent signage for vendors—another way to help professionalize and legitimize vendors’ small businesses—and producing pole banners to hang throughout Ypsilanti’s downtown. They also supported an affordable tent and table rental service, which brings both income to sustain the market and removal of a barrier to market vendors by providing an affordable and easy means to begin vending at the DYFM.
Market Growers Cooperative Study
The 21c3 pilot project funds also supported a feasibility study for a Market Gardener Cooperative program, now known as Ypsilanti Growers Cooperative. This model provides new market opportunities for small-scale and part-time growers (mostly at the scale of home and community gardeners). Similar efforts in Flint and Detroit, as well as community input, helped shape the current effort. A core group of growers has been meeting to develop a co-op structure, membership guidelines, branding, and marketing as well as identify training needs. The new cooperative will be up and running in 2012. 21c3 funds paid for the study and key infrastructure including a wash/pack station, storage, supplies, etc., to support this new venture.
While the direct focus of the pilot project was on the vendor entrepreneurs, the results can also be seen in the overall viability of the market and its ability to provide healthy, affordable, local food to the residents of Ypsilanti. In 2011, market sales continued to grow—$109,000 in total sales among all vendors (up from $22,000 in the markets’ first year in 2006). Sales with food assistance programs (EBT/SNAP/food stamps, Project FRESH, Double Up Food Bucks, et al) made up nearly 28 percent of total sales. And, 2011 saw record numbers of customers visiting the market, consistently bringing more than 800 people into downtown Ypsilanti on any given Tuesday between May and October. That’s the size of a festival, once a week.
Building on existing entrepreneurial activity, the seed money utilized through the 21c3 pilot project continues to grow as Growing Hope and its partners provide a variety of supports to the startup food-based entrepreneurs. Beyond individual successes, expanding and diversifying the farmers market, connecting vendors to larger markets, and providing vibrant events for the downtown—food business entrepreneurship is a sector that continues to flower in Ypsilanti. This grant opportunity solidified what these networks of engaged citizens could accomplish.
Ypsilanti has found, through necessity, that volunteer-driven services can be the answer to dwindling city resources. Both its parks and recreation function and the farmers market are powered through volunteers and nonprofit organizations with great success. The city’s role is to enable these groups and support their endeavors. The city is no longer the leader—it acts as a facilitator and supportive partner.