When it comes to building strong communities, every person has potential to make a big difference. CEDAM’s Community Development Fellowship places individuals in communities across Michigan that are engaged or certified in Redevelopment Ready Communities (RRC). These fellows serve for 15 months across a wide range of projects. The program is managed with support from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) with the goal of expanding organizational capacity and boosting collaboration. We (virtually) sat down with Emily Stuhldreher, a CEDAM fellow working with the Village of Shelby who is working on a number of parks and recreation initiatives.
What community are you working in, and what makes it unique?
I’m working in the Village of Shelby in Oceana County, which is a small village with just over 2,000 people. What makes it unique is that we have a 50% Hispanic community here in Shelby with very deep roots in agriculture. We are also the asparagus capital of the world, which is a fun fact that I didn’t know!
What were some of the goals your community identified that they were hoping the fellowship would accomplish?
One of my biggest goals when coming into this position was finding a way to connect the Hart Montague Rail Trail, a paved trail that runs parallel to Shelby, with the downtown area. Before, there was no way for trail users to get off the trail with a continuous path to downtown, and that blocked a lot of opportunities for downtown businesses. More than 70,000 people use the trail every year, so that was a huge missed opportunity. One of my goals was to find a connector. So, I contacted the owner of a vacant lot in the middle of Downtown Shelby. The owner was willing to sell it to us, which was incredible to purchase. We are going to convert it into a pocket park and also use it to serve as the main connector between the trail and downtown.
My second goal is to put a wayfinding sign on the trail. Currently, there’s no sign that identifies that you are in Shelby, or outlines the businesses that trail users could visit downtown. People on the trail can ride by Shelby without even realizing what’s there. I want to put a wayfinding sign on the trail that points toward our new pocket park and also lists some of the restaurants and local shopping opportunities available to increase traffic to the downtown area. Lastly, I want to fulfill the Redevelopment-Ready Community Certification, also known as RRC, for Shelby before I leave.
Tell me a little bit about your background and what led you to apply for the fellowship.
In May of 2020, I graduated from Michigan State University with two majors in Environmental Studies and Sustainability and Sustainable Parks, Recreation Tourism. For two years during undergrad I interned at the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance in Lansing, a state advocacy group for non-motorized trails in Michigan. This experience sparked my interest in continuing my career in the nonprofit sector, especially as it relates to environmental conservation. So when I was reading the goals the Village of Shelby wanted to complete with its fellow, their need for a pathway connector resonated with me and motivated me to apply. I thought that, with my background, this would be a perfect opportunity to help Shelby while gaining experience of my own.
Tell me how the Village of Shelby responded to COVID-19 last year – were you involved in any community engagement efforts?
We were involved in quite a few efforts. First, Shelby’s village administrator announced that the village was canceling all water payments. We were one of the very first municipalities in Michigan to cancel water payments, which led to some news coverage. Other than that, we closed the Village Hall and moved our boards and commission meetings online. Our village clerk was instrumental in organizing this and letting the community know that meetings were going virtual in hopes of getting more participation for our boards and commission meetings.
You’ve touched on some of the projects you’ve already been working on – how has the fellowship moved those projects forward?
The Village of Shelby has a very small staff of only three people. Much of the staff is occupied with a number of tasks at any given time, so they really had no additional time on their hands to take on additional projects. I was able to add capacity by solely focusing on these projects. I also work heavily with our grant coordinator John Wilson – he applied for a DNR Land and Water Conservation grant for the historic Getty Park in Shelby. We actually learned that we were recently awarded $300,000 for park improvements, which is awesome. I’ve been able to focus on helping John with the application, along with the pocket park and the connector path project. I know that the connector has been a goal for the Village of Shelby forever, and now that I’m here it’s been easier for this village to get that project going and finally get it finished. I expect to hopefully get the pocket park finished by the time my fellowship is completed in September.
How has the community responded to your projects?
In terms of everyday residents, I haven’t had the opportunity to chat much with people due to the pandemic – but we do get a lot of coverage from our local newspaper here in Shelby, The Oceana Herald Journal. They cover some of the things I’ve been working on and help share our work. There have been some pretty positive comments on some of my projects across social media but, unfortunately due to the pandemic, I haven’t really been able to track the community response as much as I’d like.
You’re about halfway through the fellowship. Can you tell me what your favorite part has been and what you’re looking forward to in the second half?
My favorite part has been being able to work with parks, specifically the pocket park and Getty Park. I never thought that as a recent graduate I would be managing and leading my own park project and co-managing another, which has been an excellent responsibility. I just love the flexibility that the fellowship brings to Shelby; I can be creative and add my own spark to things. I’m very excited to see the pocket park come to fruition – I think it’s going to be a fantastic asset to the community.
What would you say to someone considering a fellowship opportunity?
I’m so incredibly grateful for this experience and this opportunity. I didn’t think that in a million years I’d be doing a job with so much responsibility so soon after graduating. It’s been a crash course in how municipal government works, and I’ve really enjoyed it and think it would be a great experience for others who are hoping to explore this sector as well.
Want to learn more about how a fellow like Emily could help increase your organization’s capacity – or how you could become a fellow yourself? Learn more about the program!