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Glenn Puit: Wiring Empire for SuccessPrint

Thriving Communities | May 26, 2009 | By Glenn Puit

Empire’s Lake Michigan shoreline is beautiful, but to build its local economy the village needs a growth plan that includes badly needed infrastructure, something The Grand Vision can help fashion and implement.

Located along a particularly beautiful stretch of northern Lake Michigan shoreline, the small village of Empire looks like a guaranteed economic success story.

But despite its beautiful locale, Empire struggles to maintain enough economic activity, particularly during its long northern Michigan’s winters, so that year-rounders can make a living.

Recently, the village took a standard downtown-boosting step: It buffed up its streetscape and beach. Now officials are pursuing a less traditional project that could turn a lot of younger heads toward this community of 360, where the median age is 49: installing free, village-wide, wireless Internet service.

Paul Skinner, chairman of the village’s planning commission, thinks the couple thousand dollars the wi-fi project would cost is a smart investment for a community whose main business is tourism and whose main draw is its natural beauty.

“Whenever I’m traveling, and I get to a town where I’d want to spend some time,” Mr. Skinner said, “I get the laptop out and cruise around for a signal, looking for places to stay and places to eat. The easier you make that, the more likely tourists are going to stay there and spend some money. More business means more jobs and a more vibrant economy.”

As it happens, his idea fits well with The Grand Vision’s citizen-based plan for encouraging economic growth in community centers. The 50-year plan, released in final outline form last week for the six-county region that includes Empire, strongly points new business and residential growth toward village and city centers.

Tino Breithaupt, senior vice president of economic development for the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, a major supporter of The Grand Vision, said meshing local plans with the regional development strategy is crucial.

“Those communities that can identify a strategic approach to growth and development will likely prosper in the years to come,” Mr. Breithaupt said.

Grand Vision leaders say that a number of area non-profit organizations are now getting set to help Empire and dozens of other local municipalities with that big job. Six of them, including the Michigan Land Use Institute, are leading working groups, which anyone can join, that will translate the broad, 50-year plan into step-by-step strategies for each of the Vision’s six sections-growth and investment, affordable housing, transportation choices, food and farming, energy, and natural resources-for communities that want to participate.

Mr. Skinner, who supports The Grand Vision, recalled a meeting he attended several years ago that confirmed the importance of such implementing strategies. At the meeting, a presenter unveiled a list of top concerns for Leelanau County residents.

“It was things like sprawl, vistas not being ruined, farming land preserved, and improving the infrastructure of the village,” Mr. Skinner said. “The presenter then announced that those desires came from an agenda meeting held by county officials some 20 years earlier in the exact same room. So, here we are 20 years down the road, with quite substantial growth, and we still haven’t really got a grip on it.”

The Vision leaders are committed to getting that grip. So they are working with major philanthropic organizations, governments, and private capital to assemble funding for grants for communities that take specific steps to encourage downtown growth.

Mr. Skinner said that, in Empire’s case, the Grand Vision could help the community by identifying funding for a sewer system.

“We have a vision, but we don’t have the infrastructure in the villages to accommodate that growth,” he said of his tiny town. “For the Grand Vision to work, we need investment in the infrastructure.”

Mr. Breithaupt agreed, and added that the village can help its cause by taking thoughtful and appropriate zoning and planning steps that show the community not only has a vision, but is also acting on it.

“Without these basic infrastructure components, companies will likely immediately dismiss a community,” he said.

“There are many community development grant programs that communities can apply for through USDA Rural Development and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to improve and strengthen their downtowns,” he added. “But, again, it comes down to a community having the vision and strategy in place to determine what they want to be in 20 years and what types of development they want to attract.”

Glenn Puit is a policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at Glenn@mlui.org.