CEDAM’s community development fellowship places 10 fellows in communities engaged or certified in MEDC’s Redevelopment Ready Communities for a fifteen month placement that started June 2020. This blog post is a part of our #FellowFeature series highlighting the work fellows are doing to support and advance the community economic development goals of their communities.
CEDAM’s director of communications and training, Emily Reyst, spoke with Josh Prusik about his work in Cass CIty. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell me what community you’re working in and what makes your community unique?
I’m working in Cass City, Michigan. We’re a small village of about 2,400 and, while that’s small, regionally we’re one of the bigger communities. We have a really nice historic downtown area that has maintained a few historical features which give the town a lot of character. Our pharmacy is actually an old hotel building that was built for travelers that were traveling through the thumb before automobiles were available. As people were moving through these communities to buy and sell goods, or traveling to see family, they could only travel a couple miles a day, and this hotel got most of that traffic.
Can you tell me about the goals that the community has for you that they want to accomplish with your help?
When Cass City brought me on, the things they had listed as major projects were two of the major RRC requirements: The marketing plan and the economic development plan. The third goal was pretty much a “choose your own adventure” type of situation. I added a few other projects to my plate, such as planning and zoning, that have been interesting to me and where I’ve thought that I could add capacity.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
I did my undergraduate at Michigan State in their Department of Community Sustainability. My actual major is environmental studies and sustainability. At the time, that was a really broad program and maybe still is. Because of that, I gained a lot of knowledge about community development, consensus building, and project management with large organizations. From there, I ended up going into a masters program at Western Michigan University in Public Administration, and drew on those sustainability and community engagement principles. When I had graduated from Michigan State, at the time, I was an intern with the Michigan Farmers Market Association, and they brought me on full-time as their professional development manager. I was focused on running their annual conference, their Market Manager Certificate Program, and other capacity building things in the farmers’ market world.
What excites you about your projects and what are you making progress on?
As part of RRC requirements, zoning is a big component. Pretty early on in Cass City I started meeting with our planning commission and a small ad hoc committee—formed right around the time that I got there—that was specifically focused on zoning amendments. Luckily, we have a member of our planning commission that is also a member of our village board of trustees and a code inspector in Northville Township. Being able to work closely with him and draw on his knowledge that he’s built over his career has been really fruitful for me. I have a much deeper understanding of zoning than I had before and I have worked with our small group to bring some of our outdated codes and ordinances up to modern standards and the needs of the community.
Tell me more about the downtown vibrancy committee. I know that it’s something that might carry on your work after the fellowship.
That is still in its early stages of development, but our DDA has been working for almost a decade on a façade improvement grant program and it’s had trouble gaining traction. I met with the façade improvement group and have supported them in forming a vision for a downtown vibrancy committee. The façade improvements program will still be a part of this, but I have suggested that the committee focus more on incremental development and improvements to downtown. They have been really receptive to that idea and they have built up energy around it. I’m really excited to see where it goes.
The last thing I want to ask you about is your partnership with the library.
One of the big parts of RRC is the continual tracking and training and resources for your boards and committees. Because we’re a small community, we don’t have a large budget for professional development like some other municipalities may have. I started meeting with the director of our local branch, which is the Rawson Memorial Library. At the time they were thinking of pursuing a grant from the American Libraries Association on integrating libraries with their communities. That has provided a really good entry point for us to have a conversation about the role the library can have in serving as a resource for our boards and committees. Our library has a really nice business development section, and their director and I have been working on slowly building up a professional development section for village staff and village boards. The goal is to have the library to serve as a hub for resources and documents we get from the Michigan Association of Planning, different textbooks, or introductory books like Strong Towns, which is now available at our local library. Not only can our village board members check them out, but these great resources are also available to the public. This is about finding a way to provide pathways for anyone that wants to improve the community to have a good starting point.
You’re about halfway through the fellowship. What has been your favorite part of the program so far? What are you looking forward to in the second half?
It has been really nice to build relationships with community members. One of the things about being in the community sustainability program at Michigan State is that they encourage you to view yourself as a resource in a community, as opposed to being a solution for a community. Many experts that go into communities with a “fix it” attitude are unable to build up sustainable change. I think going into Cass City with a mindset of “How do I serve as a resource for this community?” instead of “What am I here to fix?” has been really helpful in understanding what the community really cares about and discovering who has certain passions to take on some pretty large projects. That relationship building with our boards and committee members, and members of the public, has been a really nice experience.
What would you tell someone who is considering applying to the fellowship in the future?
I would say go for it! It has been a really great experience for me. I’ve always had an interest around community development and local government, but I never really had the opportunity to do a deep dive into local government. I wasn’t sure how I was going to transition from nonprofit work into local government work, and this program has pretty much been the perfect solution for bringing me into this world of local government while maintaining some of my nonprofit and community development roots. It has really allowed me to expand my knowledge.
Is there anything else you want to say about your fellowship experience or a project we didn’t get to talk about that you want to make sure is included?
I just want to say that Cass City has been very welcoming to me and very appreciative of the time that I’ve been there. I really appreciate the openness that people have and the fact that they’re willing to talk to me about some issues they have found important or certain ideas that they’ve had for awhile. I think one of the biggest benefits of this fellowship is being able to come into the community with a clean slate and open all of these doors to start conversations.