Bringing the Rural Community Together Annually

By Julie Hales-Smith, Coordinator of the Michigan Vacant Property Campaign

If folks were planning to add golf to their itinerary when they traveled up to beautiful Crystal Mountain Resort on April 14 for the Small Town and Rural Development Conference, they were mightily disappointed – snow, ice and cold winds prevailed. However, they were NOT disappointed with the conference itself! In its 10th year, this conference attracts everyone from city managers to Chamber Directors from all over the state who are interested and passionate about small towns in Michigan and the great potential of our rural areas.

The conference kicked off with a pre-conference working session on Monday afternoon – Making Quality Places : Placemaking Strategy Development – that had over 50 people excitedly chattering and talking over each other to conceive, design and plan placemaking projects for eight different communities across the state. The eight communities were selected beforehand from the list of attendees so that people familiar with the communities and who had a stake in the communities would actually be able to take the ideas back. The session was facilitated by Jim Tischler of MSHDA and Mark Wyckoff of MSU LPI and began with an overview of the different types of placemaking. Then the small groups dug into the exercises with gusto. Yes, placemaking is alive and well in small communities – the potential is endless.

Tuesday morning started off with a “bang” or should we say a “pluck”- The Power of Pluck: Big Ideas for Small Communities – from  Bob Jacquart, Chief Executive Officer at Jacquart Fabric Products  who energized and motivated the crowd with his infectious and enthusiastic story of how his family grew a small canvas repair and small custom bag business with only one employee (his Dad??!!)  into a company of over 140 employees with more than $15M in annual sales – all located in Ironwood, Michigan. This man has entrepreneurial spirit written all over him – and of course on his cap is the Sormy Kromer logo – a company he bought several years ago and is expanding as we speak.

The breakout sessions were sprinkled with topics that all folks involved in rural community development need to know about – healthcare delivery in rural settings, updates from state agencies that fund and support rural development, trails, volunteer recruitment strategies and the like. One panel of particular interest featured a brand new technology called Michigan Digital Trails – Marketing Trails for Placemaking and Economic Development. Prima Civitas, through a partnership with GeLo, seeks to bridge the disconnect between trails and the surrounding towns to increase tourism and economic development using location-specific iBeacon technology (check it out at

The keynote at lunch was a plucky economic developer from Ontario who convinced the audience that youth outmigration should be re-framed as expatriate attraction – we have a better chance of attracting them back than keeping them home in the first place. And maybe leaving home makes the expats much better community assets when they do come back.

The Tuesday night dinner MUST be mentioned (or EXHAUSTINGLY CHEERED). It was advertised as a “Michigan Food and Beer Pairing with Stormcloud Brewing Company from Frankfort, MI. (Of course non-alcoholic options were available, as well as gluten-free beer.) The food was amazing, the beer intriguingly apt, and oh my goodness the dessert: Naturally Nutty Peanut Butter Pie with Storm Cloud Ice Cream (the peanut butter came from Naturally Nutty in Williamsburg, MI). The crowd was feeling a little “naturally nutty” by the time they finished this sumptuous meal. It was the best conference food ever!

Don’t miss this one next year. According to many of the conference attendees, it keeps getting better with each year. The sponsor, Michigan Rural Council, is a program of the Community Economic Development Association of Michigan (CEDAM). Check out the Michigan Rural Council at