Saint Johns fellow a key player in moving zoning, rebrand, other initiatives forward

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 Jonathan Bowman, a CEDAM fellow working with the City of Saint Johns, who is working on a number of zoning and community engagement projects.

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

I work in the city of Saint Johns and we have a great downtown area. I know some communities don’t have a specific downtown; we have a Downtown Development Authority (DDA) district. They’re very involved business leaders, it’s a fairly walkable community, and we have a lot of great trails.

The fellowship, in particular, is interesting because I work with the city of Saint John’s but also with the DDA and Clinton County Catalyst (formerly the economic alliance). It’s been a great experience for me to be able to be a part of all those organizations. 

What goals does your community hope to accomplish with your help?

The most significant thing for the city is Redevelopment Ready Communities (RRC) certification. They really need someone to take a lead role and make sure that we continue moving forward. The goal for Clinton County Catalyst is facilitating and working on the rebrand. I’ve been coordinating that process: Meeting with web developers, getting the website live, adding new content and news articles, and continuously updating it. 

Can you tell me about your background and what led you to apply for the fellowship?

I attended Grand Valley State University for undergrad and I was super involved there. I was able to be the student body president which was fantastic. It was a great experience to work with administration of the university and also with the community. We tried to connect the outside community of Allendale and Grand Rapids into the university and students. From there I really kind of changed gears and what I wanted to do professionally because I was studying political science and I did an internship at the state level. I realized that it wasn’t the path that I wanted to go on— I really wanted to have more of a direct impact on local communities and to really switch my focus to local government. A lot of people don’t realize that that’s where a lot the work happens that I think is more tangible and really impacts residents. 

When I graduated from undergrad I decided to go into my Masters For Public Administration. I had the opportunity to work with two communities: The Village Of Sparta on the west side of the state as a code enforcement officer, and then with the City of Novi in the city manager’s office. When I was graduating grad school and looking for a full time job, this position popped up and I actually heard about it through somebody in my capstone at Grand Valley. I also have a friend who works as a RRC planner, Julia Turnbull, so hearing from both of those individuals about this program, it really piqued my interest especially when there was an opportunity to not just work for a city but with the DDA and an economic development organization. 

Were you involved in any community engagement efforts? How did you navigate that with COVID-19?

I worked on a public engagement plan to try to reach out to the community because we weren’t seeing people in person. We are doing a lot of zoning changes with the city in  connection to RRC, as well as improving our ordinances as a whole. We developed an engagement plan detailing the changes that we’re making and put it into a public input packet to inform the community. We posted the packet and then put the link at the bottom of the packets for people and encouraged them to read through the information before taking a survey. We got really good feedback from people! We were able to tweak some of the ordinances because of the feedback that we received. 

What other projects have you helped move forward? 

We recently started working on our zoning map. We haven’t done a complete codification of all of our ordinances and zoning changes since 2001, so it’s been a good twenty years. We want to make sure that all of our classifications are listed correctly and we also want to get those on our website in an interactive forum. We want to make sure that it’s clear for someone trying to develop in Saint Johns. I’m coordinating this project and I went through and found all of the changes in ordinances since 1972.

What would you tell someone who’s considering applying to the fellowship?

It’s a great opportunity, and I think there are not many jobs there like this that are full time and want you to be involved in different processes that they have going on. Dave, my supervisor,  wants me involved in everything. It’s been great to experience the different aspects of a city, or an economic development organization or the DDA, all those different things. I think every community has unique opportunities available. So, why wait? I would say to dive right in and make sure that you’re ready and excited to get involved with anything you can. 

Is there anything that you feel like you didn’t cover and want to say?

There are a lot of great things going on. I think St. John’s is really a hidden gem that I hadn’t been to before honestly. It’s been great to work there. I think our business community is just so connected together— it’s inspiring to be a part of this community and try to better it for everyone to experience. Visit St. Johns!

Interested in becoming a fellow yourself? Learn more about the program and apply by Monday, July 26!