After spending the last two years running Charlotte’s Rising Tide community economic development program, Dillon Rush hopes to bring his expertise to the Lansing and Mid-Michigan region. A graduate of the University of Michigan, Rush was recently hired by the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP) to bring more placemaking and community development initiatives to the growing region. He spoke with MiBiz about some of the area’s unique attributes and what the addition of rural Shiawassee County to the metropolitan statistical area could mean for the region.
What do you see as the major opportunities for placemaking and community development around the Lansing and Mid-Michigan region?
I’ve got a lot of communities to visit and get the particular details from each of them, but from an overall landscape, we’re really trying to rebuild the quality of place in the greater Lansing region, and create that enticing image so that we can attract and retain businesses in our towns.
What are some of the key tools at your disposal to make that happen?
We have a couple of programs. One has been around for a little bit: the Public Art for Communities grant, which we partnered with PNC Bank so graciously. That’s all about assisting communities financially and technically, and integrating placemaking in a variety of ways throughout their community. These are smaller, but really effective projects, whether it’s a mural or an art sculpture, an alleyway that really transcends something ordinary into something extraordinary. There’s projects like that coming from our grant side of the equation.
We also are just kicking off a public space design team. We’re going to call them Public Space Pros, which essentially is a team of design professionals, architects, engineers, landscapers, and all that are brought together to really capitalize on bigger-scale projects that oftentimes — when the budget is tight — struggle to really activate the public space part of their project. That’s something that’s on our radar right now, and (determining) how we can better assist these new businesses coming in (with) activating their public space, which obviously has great benefits for the community.
In LEAP’s region, you’ve got a strong mix of urban and rural communities. Do you envision having to address aspects of placemaking and community development differently from one community to the next?
Sure. That’s the fun part of my job. I get to touch a lot of different communities with a lot of different backgrounds and sizes, and though everything can be scaled, of course, it really does come down to the simple concepts that are rooted in economic development, the placemaking. They can be transferred to any kind of community.
What do you mean by that?
As I make the rounds around the community and really just getting a feel for who they are — (it’s about) the authenticity and analyzing the strengths and the opportunities case by case. When you do that, there’s a ton of resources at the state level, at the federal level, and the local level that definitely can be utilized. It’s all about getting that personal touch to then capitalize on who they are.
What do you see as the tangible goals in your position over the next few years?
I’ll give you a hot topic right now: opportunity zones. (Editor’s note: The zones are a tax deferral mechanism included in last year’s GOP tax overhaul that aims to spur investment in lower-income areas). It’s a really unique, really cool, federal incentive program that we want to make aware to all the communities so we can capitalize on these. Preferential tax treatment, loans, investors — that’s exactly what we want to secure job investments, or private investment and job creation. As we start talking about these opportunities in the next three to five years, we really want to see them boom.
What do you view as the Lansing region’s unique attributes for attracting these types of placemaking investments?
It may be a cliché answer, but I think it really speaks volumes to who we are as a region. We are incredibly diverse in our creativity and how we think about placemaking. We have a poet laureate here at LEAP, and I couldn’t name many other places that have a poet laureate program.
How does that fit into the ideas of placemaking?
It’s not an art sculpture, but when we go back to emotions of individuals or communities, it goes back to that sense of place. When they come into town, and when they leave the town, what are they feeling? That speaks volumes to who we are, and what we’re trying to be and where we’re going. We’re pretty proud of the diversity, and we’re trying to implement that placemaking throughout.
Shiawassee County to the northeast of Lansing was recently added to the metropolitan area, bringing the region to more 500,000 people. What impact will that have on your efforts?
Half a million is really a key criteria when we look at marketing for business attraction. It’s an asterisk next to our name — a positive asterisk. We get some eyes, and that’s just because we have this population growth, simply because we’re over 500,000. When you have more people, obviously, now you have more revenue. You can do more parks. You’re attracting restaurants, and retail, and all of a sudden, this trajectory — although it is already going up the last couple of years — now it’s going to just really skyrocket.