Mayors and city officials across Michigan consider economic development a top priority in their communities, but they tend to put more emphasis on placemaking and quality of life than jobs and entrepreneurship.
That’s according to the findings of a January study released by the Michigan Municipal League, an Ann Arbor-based organization that lobbies on behalf of cities around the state.
The 2017 “State of the Cities” report examined 27 State of the City speeches delivered by mayors or other municipal executives from various cities in Michigan and found that economic development “was far and away the most commonly cited issue, with 96 percent of leaders spending significant time on the topic,” according to the MML report.
The analysis found that while economic development broadly stood out as the most important priority for officials, it was cultural economic development — museums, farmers markets and other quality of life amenities — that 92 percent of mayors spent significant time discussing in their speeches.
According to the analysis, 77 percent of mayors cited business attraction and growth as a priority, while 73 percent also discussed downtown development.
Meanwhile, jobs/employment, neighborhood revitalization, tourism and entrepreneurship were also included within the economic development category of the report, but city officials spent less time talking about them.
According to Shanna Draheim, director of policy development at the MML and the author of the report, it’s not that city leaders de-emphasize job growth and entrepreneurship as important attributes for economic development. Rather, many feel that by investing in quality of life and cultural amenities, they’ll attract more private-sector investment.
“They do it because they want to grow jobs and attract businesses,” Draheim said, adding that placemaking and quality of life make for top priorities of the organization. “Some of the things (mayors are) highlighting as achievements and accomplishments are things like farmers markets, festivals, arts and entertainment. I think they see the importance of that in attracting and retaining jobs, people and businesses.”
Draheim acknowledged private economic development organizations like The Right Place Inc. and entrepreneurial service organizations such as Start Garden can help municipalities with corporate growth and attraction initiatives.
Nonetheless, cities around the state are touting their own economic development wins.
In Grand Rapids, for example, the city’s Economic Development department announced in January that it completed 12 projects last year — a mix of real estate development and new or expanding businesses — totalling $173 million in new investment and $839,000 in new city taxes.
“We had a good 2017, and our pipeline for new projects in 2018 is very robust,” Kara Wood, the city’s managing director of economic development services, said in a statement.
Similar to other cities around the state both large and small, Grand Rapids continues to put particular emphasis on riverfront development. Big cities like Grand Rapids and Detroit plan to develop their riverfronts with a mix of uses ranging from entertainment to recreation to residential and commercial projects.
Smaller Michigan cities also reportedly seek those opportunities.
“We envision the Saginaw Riverfront as an Entertainment District and Event Venue where our citizens enjoy the effect of placemaking,” Saginaw Mayor Dennis Browning said in the MML report. “We plan to attract more small business development, and diversify our economy through stronger cultural collaborations and private/public ventures.”
After economic development, officials named infrastructure and public safety their other top priorities. Other concerns include housing, budget and management issues, offering welcoming communities, the environment, education, health care and data/technology, according to the MML analysis.
Those priorities largely align with the findings of a recent national report released by the National League for Cities.
While the report separated issues pertaining to Michigan’s roads, bridges and infrastructure from the category of economic development, both sets of topics are interconnected in many ways, sources said.
“When they’re talking about (infrastructure), they’re talking about Michigan being competitive, their communities being competitive,” said Draheim with the MML. “Absolutely, I think every time they’re mentioned, that comes into play. The economic side of it comes into play. It’s no surprise that roads and bridges (are priorities). It’s an issue in our state.”
These mayoral speeches allow organizations like the MML to better identify issues such as infrastructure and economic development, Draheim said. Therefore, the organization continues to emphasize the topics’ importance to its membership, she said.
“It’s a great way to communicate with residents and a great way to communicate with communities in our state and kind of have this shared knowledge of what are key and important issues,” Draheim said. “We’ll really be pushing hard this year in trying to help our city leaders understand the value of doing these state of the cities speeches and tracking their own issues over time.”