Frankenmuth Fellow Ashley McKnight helps connect residents not only to local government, but to each other

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 Ashley McKnight about her work in Frankenmuth. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

What community are you working in and what makes it unique?

CEDAM fellow Ashley McKnight

I’m working in the city of Frankenmuth. The first thing that I found out very quickly that makes Frankenmuth very unique is it’s a city of 5,000 residents but acts like a city of 50,000. The spirit that everyone has here is remarkable. Most of the people that live there also work there. That gives it such a sense of pride, and if that wasn’t enough, many of the people who live there have lived there for generations.  

What does your community hope to accomplish with your help?

I have three big projects that I got hired on for originally. The first one is ‘Heart and Soul’, which focuses on the collaboration between the community and policymakers. It aims to engage everyone within the community and give everyone an equal opportunity to voice their opinions about big decisions or volunteer when possible with policymakers. The hope is to create a vibrant town economically, politically, and an overall stronger sense of pride, which as I said, is a big thing for the community. 

The second thing that I’m doing is the parks and recreation plan. Right now we’re comparing the 2013 survey to the 2020 survey and seeing how we’ve evolved, what things we can do better, what new things have helped, and what else we can add.

Lastly, I’m working on updating the master plan. The master plan they’re utilizing now is from the 1980s, and they hope to bring me on as a fresh pair of eyes and make sure it reflects how the town has grown. 

I want to follow up on the first project you mentioned. How is that going? 

We just started a new initiative to engage residents, similar to the Humans of New York movement. We call it ‘Who lives, works, and plays here’, and we’re trying to highlight everyone within the community. I’m working to find people who might not be the biggest people within Frankenmuth, but you know, still play a huge role. Everyone in the community has such an impact on everything that goes on there and I’m pleased with all the creative things that we’re doing.

Can you tell me how your community responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and how the fellowship helped?

Another great thing that we did was called ‘Dear neighbor’ from July to August 2020. Everyone was mostly still in their houses and feeling pretty bummed out. We thought of this creative engagement method where people in the community would write in letters about a topic and then you would swap the letter with someone else—it’s sort of like an anonymous pen pal, but you could make it non-anonymous if you wanted to continue the relationship. I think it was such a great way to connect people within the city when you’re looking for someone to talk to, as you were during that time. 

Additionally, the parks and rec survey went out as soon as Michigan went back on lockdown. I was nervous that we weren’t going to get a lot of engagement so I pulled every social media tactic that I could think of out of my back pocket. I had it posted to community bulletins, work bulletins, the schools’ newsletter that they sent out, the newspaper—anything I could think of. We ended up getting more responses than the past surveys!

What has the community response been like? Do they know about the fellowship? 

I have a ton of relationships within the community because my point of contact, which is my city manager, wanted to ensure that everyone knew me. Therefore I went to, and I continue to go to, almost every single meeting. I was in the communities’ newspaper on their social media. So I think that that was a great stepping stone for whenever I reach out to people from there.

What are you looking forward to and what has been your favorite part so far? 

The new ampitheater that is also being used as an outdoor classroom

They go hand and in hand. The first half of the fellowship was getting the plans together, developing what I was going to do, and engaging the community. The second half is putting them into play and getting real results. I’m excited to fit all the pieces into a bigger part.

What would you tell somebody who is considering applying to the fellowship in the future?

I think that I bring an aspect that not a lot of people bring—I’m originally from Florida, and then I went to school at Ohio State. A lot of the fellows are from Michigan and are familiar with their places, and I was not at all. So I would tell someone to apply to a place that you’re interested in what they’re doing, and don’t be afraid to apply to it just because you don’t know about the place or you don’t know anyone there. I didn’t know anyone in Michigan, but I would say if you don’t have passion for what they’re doing, you’re probably not going to enjoy it.

What type of skills or professional development experience is the fellowship giving you? 

I would say that it’s sharpening my engagement skills as well as my comprehensive planning skills and strategic planning skills. It’s honestly sharpening a lot of things, even my creativity. 

How do you see the fellowship helping you reach your future professional goals?

I see it playing into really anything that I do. Especially as my point of contact always says, “Whether you’re staying public or you’re going private, I want you to have any toolset that you can use in the future.”