A Small Town with a Big Personality

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This past January, my coworkers and I took a day trip to a little town called Otsego just about a half hour south of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The City of Otsego was planning to apply for the Michigan Main Street program and we were visiting to check in on their progress. As we came off the highway and continued into town, we came upon a two-block downtown that didn’t look much different from many Michigan rural communities. Several store fronts were vacant, the buildings could use some work, and the streets were empty. Sadly, due to the evolution of many downtowns, this is something we see often in Michigan. But most importantly, it’s something we are passionate about improving.

During our stay, the folks from downtown Otsego were kind enough to show us all around the city. The popular public library, the privately owned grocery store, and the large Kalamazoo River running right through downtown allowed us to recognize the wonderful personality of Otsego. The city’s newly built public high school was absolutely stunning—something the whole town was proud of. We were also shown a fully functional industrial paper mill very close to the downtown area.  It became clear to us that Otsego was once a thriving area with lots of history and plenty of potential.

An Unforgettable Application

At the Michigan Main Street Center, we require potential Main Street communities to show they are ready to adopt the Main Street approach through several requirements. For example, you must plan to hire a full-time manager for your Main Street program, have an acting board of directors and committees that are willing to adopt the approach, and put together an inventory of buildings and properties in the downtown district. But perhaps the most important thing that the Michigan Main Street Center looks to find in a successful applicant is community support. If business owners, city officials, and other important stakeholders don’t support Main Street, communities tend to have a hard time creating a successful program. It is crucial to the success of the downtown that the surrounding community believes in the Main Street program and helps and allows it to flourish.

In Otsego, we were overwhelmed by the community support that we began to see over the next few months. In February, each community applying for the Michigan Main Street program is required to present to the Michigan Main Street Advisory Board in hopes of being selected for the program. Over the last ten years that the Michigan Main Street Center has been established, we have seen presentations from communities of all varieties. From costumes, to formal addresses, to live chickens, we’ve really seen it all. We look forward to these presentations each and every year and this year we were quite impressed with the City of Otsego. As we sat waiting for their arrival, in walked a tin man made completely of tin foil, an impressive Dorothy, and a man dressed head to toe as a lion. They were immediately followed by 15-25 munchkins and another 15-20 supporters of all ages. It seemed as though the whole town of Otsego had made the trip to Lansing!

The number of people from Otsego alone was impressive, but it wasn’t until they began their presentation that we could really see the passion behind wanting to be a part of the Michigan Main Street program. The community had created a movie just for this presentation and it was filmed, edited, and produced by a group of dedicated Otsego high school students. As “The Wizard of Otsego” began to play, all of the Michigan Main Street staff and advisory committee members began to smile. The movie was charming, informative and truly demonstrated the need for change in downtown Otsego. “If I had a brain, I’d fill this vacant building with donuts, cakes, and most of all coffee!” says, the Otsego Scarecrow. “People would come from all over to see it!”

Perhaps the best part of the movie was the crowd of nearly 400 Otsego residents, business owners, and people of all ages, dressed in coordinating colors to make a full rainbow of bodies. All 400 people performed a choreographed dance to “Gangnum Style”, proving that this town doesn’t take themselves too seriously and is willing to go the extra mile. If that wasn’t enough, we were also given 46 letters of financial commitment from Otsego business owners and residents, to the Otsego Main Street program totaling $48,423. And the best part… the financial commitments came together in only 72 hours!

Ongoing Community Support

Naturally, it wasn’t a difficult decision to accept Otsego into the Michigan Main Street Program. We truly appreciated their enthusiasm and we were excited to get started. But it wasn’t until May that we were able to come to Otsego for their Baseline Assessment. Do you think that slowed down their momentum? Absolutely not! Between their acceptance in February and their assessment in May, Otsego Main Street organized two events, put together a brand new office for the program, and made lots of noise in the local media. The first event was a Main Street Celebration complete with a red carpet, outdoor ice skating, and a “swearing-in” ceremony for all those who had promised to be a part of making Otsego a better place.

In April, a space for the Otsego Main Street office was rented from a local property owner who was kind enough to donate extra meeting space as needed. Once that space was announced, the Otsego Main Street program didn’t purchase a single item for the office other than a desktop computer for their new Main Street manager. Every piece of furniture, every appliance, and every decoration was donated from local residents and business owners. Now that’s community support!

Once the office was completed, the Otsego Main Street program hosted an open house for the office. Every donation, down to the very last flower in the vase was clearly labeled with the name of the donor and a thank you note. Guests at the open house were invited to sign up for each of the four committees (promotions, organization, economic restructuring, and design) depending on their interest or skills. All the while, the local newspapers, TV stations, and other press were closely following and documenting Otsego every step of the way.

Otsego Main Street also continued to post regularly on social media outlets, making sure to thank all who were involved and intend to be in the future. It became very clear to us that this is a town that values relationships and is going to make sure that their story is told from the very beginning. We were quite impressed by all of the activity and enthusiasm created before the program had technically even started. In May, a team formed by our National Main Street Center Senior Officer and Michigan Main Street staff, arrived to conduct the baseline assessment. This is a service provided to our newly selected communities to recognize the progress made toward establishing a local Main Street program and assist them in defining a vision for downtown and strategies to build a strong revitalization process.

Defining a Vision

We kicked off the visit with a visioning session. We were delighted, but not surprised to see a very proactive group of property owners, business owners, residents, students, city officials and other local leaders, ready to share their ideas and volunteer their time for downtown Otsego. The results of the visioning session were very telling of the wants and needs for a vibrant, active downtown Otsego. Some of the ideas included developing the riverfront area, creating events and activities for all ages, highlighting the strong family environment of the Otsego community, and adding shopping opportunities, restaurants and gathering places. Our team thinks that with Otsego’s passion, hard work, and supportive attitude, this community can and will, do anything they put their minds to!

Towards the end of the “Wizard of Otsego” movie, we thought Otsego Police Officer of 26 years, Lenny Borgman said it best. “Otsego has that small town atmosphere with a progressive attitude.” Michigan Main Street couldn’t agree more. We are looking forward to working closely with the Otsego Main Street program and supporting them with resources and assistance to be successful in their efforts. We can’t wait for opportunities to visit again and see the progress they are sure to make over the next few short years.

To follow the progress of the Otsego Main Street program, visit their website at www.otsegomainstreet.org or www.cityofotsego.org. You can also check them out on Facebook!

Read more about the community visioning session in Otsego and learn why defining a downtown vision is an essential part of any revitalization effort.