Tuesday, August 20, 2019
MEDC leaders share their vision for the future
When it comes to supporting economic development in Michigan's communities - large and small, how has the MEDC made an impact and what new tools will become available to help expand that role?
We caught up with Greg Tedder, Executive Vice President and Chief Community Development Officer, and Katharine Czarnecki, Senior Vice President of Community Development, to get a pulse on what’s currently happening in community development across Michigan while gaining insights into their vision for the future.
What role does MEDC play in community development in Michigan’s economy?
Greg – I usually tell people that we create places that people want to live and that businesses want to locate in. More specifically, we help projects happen that otherwise aren’t economically feasible.
What projects over the past year or 18 months stand out to you?
Katharine - There are lots of projects in the city of Detroit from a scale perspective that create hundreds of housing units, but it’s those smaller projects across smaller and more rural communities in Michigan that really stand out as being impactful. For instance, we have a project in the city of Cadillac that got its first permit for multi-family housing in 15 years. I’d really like to see us help spur some of those additional developments in our smaller communities - that’s where it really hits the heart, especially for me.
It’s about more than just the building, isn’t it?
Katharine - It’s about the people living in the building; it’s about the first-floor commercial space; and it’s about creating the experience that people want to have. I always say that you don’t go to Grand Rapids and come back and say that you went to the best big box store. Yet if you go to that small independent person who makes soap or lotion or candles or you go to an amazing restaurant, you will come back and tell your friends. Those are the experiences that we want people to have and we want people to remember, especially those who are traveling to Michigan, to hopefully get them to locate here.
Greg – I like the projects that push the boundaries of what’s possible in a given market. You can accomplish that by doing projects in neighborhoods that maybe haven’t seen much development as some of the central business districts. But you can also do that by having a creative end use for a project. Some of my favorite projects have been the urban grocery stores that we’ve done, such as the first ever Meijer in downtown Grand Rapids. Also, some of our mixed-use projects that have a social service component to them like the YWCA for childcare – these really check off a lot of boxes in terms of making our communities better places to live.
How do we identify those opportunities across the state?
Katharine – We have a very robust team of field services specialists that encompasses our community assistance team. They are really the first point of contact for local units of government. We also have our Redevelopment Ready planners that help communities with planning and zoning and understanding where they want to be in the next five to 10 years. Plus, we have our Michigan Main Street program staff that help to build capacity at the local level, talking to small businesses in terms of growth potential and relocation expansion. We strive to make sure there is no wrong door.
Greg – There’s quite a bit of work that goes into these projects before they get to a ribbon cutting. It can take years. It can be something that may seem trivial such as changing a local ordinance to allow for one parking spot for a unit instead of two and a half or it could be something like a building requirement height in a downtown that goes from three stories to five stories that makes a project all of a sudden economically viable. You don’t see all those little things on the front end but that’s the kind of work that’s happening every day in our communities to make those transformational developments possible years from now.
When you talk about creating places where people want to live and work, sometimes it starts with one project, how does development continue?
Greg – One of the things that I would say that helps define a successful project are those that pop up around it that we’re not part of. We’ve got quite a few commercial corridors around our state where we’ve done what I would call “anchor projects,” that may have bookended a street. It’s when you see the smaller restaurants in between our projects that are now financially viable because of the successful project down the street that everyone can all of a sudden use as a comparable. I’m most proud of the things we haven’t done around the things that we did do.
MEDC has found unique ways to leverage community capital across the state. Encouraging communities to invest in themselves has really changed the game, hasn’t it?
Katharine – It has. We’ve seen a lot of success with our Public Spaces, Community Places program. I believe we are the first state in the country to put forth our donation-based crowdfunding platform. It’s been wildly successful. I think now that we’ve been in that program for four to five years, let’s explore what we can do next to get other individuals to participate in financing a project in their community that they want to see happen.
Greg – I also think that some of the smaller crowdfunding projects or some of the placemaking projects that we’ve used community block grants for can be that first step of public investment which can lead to that mixed-use private developer stepping in after you’ve created that sense of place where people want to be, leading to increased foot traffic. Those are the first movers, if you will, that enable private investment to flow in after the public has made the investment in themselves.
What do you think is next for community investing?
Katharine – For me, the future is small business. We do a great job of putting together real estate development projects - that is our bread and butter. Yet one thing that became evident to me as I walk along a corridor and I see the projects we’ve done is that you have young and old talent living in those great places - those apartments or condos – but if you don’t have some activation on the first floor, what really is the point? How can we make sure we are creating an environment for small businesses, especially for what I like to call the place-based entrepreneurs - the people that are making something whether its coffee or bagels or furniture? How can we provide an environment where they have access to capital, have the right connections and the tools to be successful?
What would you like to see happen in community development that you aren’t seeing today?
Katharine – I would like to see examples of community-based impact investing. I can see this happening five years down the road where communities come together and invest in a real estate development project for two reasons. First, they want to see that project happen and second, they hopefully get a return and its able to increase their personal wealth.
Greg – I think affordability is a growing trend. I think you’ll see more developments or more tools or more players stepping up to address the space between low income housing and market rate housing.
What is in the works that we could look forward to happening in community development over the next six to 12 months?
Katharine – We are really trying to look at our Michigan Main Street program and understand there are communities across the state of Michigan that we want to service with Main Street tools that will never come into our formal Main Street program. So how can we take our Michigan Main Street program and blow it up so that we can have those tools and resources available for those communities that don’t need us full time but they might need this specific training or this type of support to take the next step.
Greg – I think the general trend is getting involved with projects earlier than we have in the past. It’s OK if you are a community with a vision of what you want and where you want it, we’ve got tools and programs that we can engage with you on – maybe you don’t have a shovel ready to go in the ground today but you have a vision and plan of how to get there in the future, we want to work with you too.
Do you see more connection between small business/ entrepreneurship and placemaking? Do you see that continuing to grow?
Greg – I think what happens is the small business placemaking growth builds on itself and eventually you end up with a district and a neighborhood, and a commercial area that today might only be one or two shops but as it fills in, becomes basically a destination that you end up going to, stopping into a store that you didn’t even realize you would be going to.
How can we get more people to come back to these communities?
Katharine – Make them great places. Make them great places that young people want to live, make them great places that families want to be, and retirees want to be.
Greg – Make them walkable and help develop the types of amenities they want to see. That’s what it boils down to.
To learn more about how MEDC supports the growth of vibrant, diverse and sustainable communities across Michigan, visit miplace.org. If you have a project that you’d like to discuss in your community, please contact your Community Assistance Specialist.
To contact a business development specialist, click here or call 1.888.522.0103.