Celebrating Five Years of the Community Development Fellowship: Part 3

Our final interview in this three-part series is with Joshua Prusik! Joshua was a Community Development Fellow from 2020-2021, placed with the Village of Cass City in Tuscola County. He now works as a Main Street Specialist with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC).

What initially drew you to the Fellowship?
When I applied to the Fellowship, I was looking for a career shift. I had been working with arts and local food nonprofits for a couple of years, had finished my bachelor’s degree, and was working on a Master’s in Public Administration with a focus on both local government and nonprofit work. I had never worked in local government before— I had worked with local boards and engaged with my local government from a citizen’s perspective, but not actually worked there. At the time, I was thinking about being a city manager.

The Fellowship encompassed all those things that I thought would combine actual practice with the theory of my master’s program. I could understand what was happening on the ground, start solving local problems, and have a better understanding of the ins and outs of local government. It really seemed to come at an opportune time for me to experience what that career shift might be, without going wholesale into a full new career trajectory.

What was your community looking to gain from the Fellowship?
Much to her credit, Debbie Powell, the city manager, saw [the Redevelopment Ready Communities (RRC) toolkit] as being a catalyst for the community in a lot of ways. I think today there are still only two RRC-certified communities in Tuscola County and only a handful in the greater four/five county area. When I was brought on, Debbie was really focused on completing those key parts of RRC – the marketing plan and the economic development plan, and then really left ‘bullet number three’ as a ‘choose your own adventure.’ My ‘adventure’ ended up being the zoning ordinance overhaul, which, for somebody without a formal planning background outside of one graduate class, was a daunting task.

It was a lot of fun working with the planning commission and the DDA to figure out what their true vision for the future of downtown and community was. Then, working with our RRC planner, to get those progressive policies that fit our rural context. I think we were the smallest community in Michigan to abolish parking minimums. Through our zoning ordinance change, we permitted ADUs by right, and developed an adjacent neighborhood concept for vacant land next to the downtown to further build out the housing supply. We worked on standards for small scale/light industrial manufacturing that could happen within our downtown buildings that could open up further economic opportunities for the district. It was a lot of creative problem solving, and I think the biggest thing I’ve taken away from this whole experience was: How do we move forward in a way that is both endorsed by the community and fits the local culture, while also ensuring that we can have a path for a prosperous future?

What were your biggest takeaways from your experience?
I learned a lot in a very short amount of time— just getting to peel back the curtain on municipal government and understand how limited that capacity is, and also how much of a lifestyle it is, in a lot of ways. A lot of the time these folks are at the municipal building any time between 7am and 10pm, between meetings and anything else that would come up. It was really humbling to understand just how much falls on the plate of our municipal administrators. It was educational to see how much more capacity is needed, and how much appreciation we should have for the folks that are doing this day-in and day-out. That understanding isn’t really something I got from the theory side of my MPA, you know. The day-to-day is a lot more of an art than it is a science. I think that there’s a reason that people with social work backgrounds are drawn to community development, because so much of it is relationship building, active listening, and understanding all of this information. We’re trying to plan for the future without overextending our current capacity. I think that, from a resident perspective, was not something I was ever exposed to. It was always, ‘this is what’s currently on fire and that’s what I’m focused on,’ as a resident. There’s certainly a place for that, but good community development also encompasses the possibilities of the future as well as our current problems.

Would you say that your Fellowship experience brought you to the job you have today?
I would say 100% that the Fellowship has brought me to my role at the MEDC. I think, prior to the Fellowship, I may have ended up in municipal management. Those 15 months with Cass City really showed me just how much I enjoy the capacity-building aspect of this work – being a resource for folks and solving problems. Obviously, you get that as a city manager, but it’s not your full plate. I don’t know that I won’t take that path eventually, but what I enjoy most is learning what that specific local context is, and then trying to fold in our resources as a state agency into those local aspirations. That, I think, is just the most rewarding place to be.
We’re at a really unique intersection of the state where we’re seeing all of this high-level economic development policy, and then also the actual impact stories at the local level about what it means to have the new housing development, or to have new retail in a town that hasn’t seen new retail in 20 to 30 years. And every day, there’s something new to learn. Every week, there’s that call asking, ‘how do I do this?’ and I say, ‘I’ve got to get back to you because I’ve not heard that one before.’ And that’s not a bad thing, right? We’re innovating in our communities as much as we are anywhere else, in any other field, all around the state. Municipal governments innovate daily, they problem solve daily just as much as anybody else, and it’s incredible to be able to see that from a macro-level as well as at the individual community level, because you learn so much and have such a comprehensive understanding of it.

That’s probably also the biggest thing that I would tell people about my Fellowship experience, and for those looking at the Fellowship. Your perspective is going to shift one way or another. You’re not just going to come in and solve problems. As much as you’re there to build capacity within the community, your capacity as an individual, as a professional, is going to shift and change. The understanding of that value set, of what it is to be a public servant, is so well identified through the Fellowship experience.