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Village of Hillman Michigan is Walkable, Friendly Community
By Matt Bach
21c3 Asset: Physical Design & Walkability
Location: Northeast Michigan
Hillman Village Manager David Post and Village Trustee Wil Funk stand on the newly rebuilt gateway to their community and beam with pride.
The $2.5 million reconstructed Thunder Bay River Bridge, completed this summer in partnership with the Michigan Department of Transportation, replaced a deteriorating structure built in the early 1920s. The work was part of a larger strategic plan that’s been years in the making. The bridge, with its Hillman-esque rolling hill-style arches (also seen on village letterhead, signs, and business cards), represents yet another feature in community leaders’ constant desire to improve their village of 685 residents.
True to small-town local government at its best, the bridge design was selected by residents, accomplished by placing dots on favored designs at a public meeting, Post said. Residents even picked the bronze color used on the new street lamps downtown; and the fence, garbage receptacles, and benches in the village pocket parks. He explained having community input is important for any project, but especially for a project as large as the one happening in Hillman.
“The things we were able to accomplish this year started with our multi-year strategic plan,” Post said. “Getting the bridge replaced and removing the electric lines from the street was part of the plan to make the village more walkable and pleasant looking. It’s taken a long time to get to this point.”
HILLMAN HITS SIX OF THE EIGHT ASSETS
Despite hard economic times, Hillman is proof that communities of all shapes and sizes can move forward in creating many of the eight assets the League has identified as making for vibrant communities
The impressive work being done in Hillman resembles a 21c3 to-do list:
Green Initiatives: The village installed solar panels on the Brush Creek Mill, generating enough power to keep the building heated and air-conditioned with little or no help from energy companies. The community-initiated mill also has a working waterwheel out of a scene from “Little House on the Prairie,” and was built to serve as a community cultural center. It is now the site of weddings, community festivals, and organization meetings.
Messaging & Technology: The village is moving all telephone and electrical lines either underground or to back alleys off main street. They’ve also partnered with Merit Network Inc., to install fiber optic cable; the fiber optic communication hub will vastly improve technology in the village and surrounding area (see article on p. 31). “When Merit is done, this state is going to have one of the top fiber backbones in the U.S. We’re going to have a technology backbone like you wouldn’t believe,” Post said.
Cultural Economic Development: The village hosts events that bring people into the community and boost the local economy, such as Applefest in October, VJ Day in August, and the Mill River Days during 4th of July weekend.
Entrepreneurship: Hillman has a unique revolving loan fund that gives large and small loans, spurring construction of new businesses and the expansion of existing businesses. It has been used to start up the Hillman Printing and Graphic Design, and Village Spice and Pantry, which in turn has helped the local economy. “We have more jobs in the village than people living in the village,” Post explained, adding many workers come into the village from surrounding areas.
Education: The Hillman Library is in the process of expanding, and will have a larger computer lab; expanded education department; additional reading, audio, and video materials; and more family programming.
THE PLAN FOR MAKING HILLMAN WALKABLE
Post keeps a map on a wall in village hall showing the implementation phases of the trail system. So far, about 1.5 miles are in place, the bulk of which was completed this past summer. Getting a walking path from the village to the high school located on the outskirts of the village in Hillman Township is the next goal in the plan.
“I would just love to get a path out to the high school for the kids,” said Funk of the Hillman village council.
“Even before we had the plan, we would see a lot of people walking in town, but getting from one place to another wasn’t always easy,” Post said. “We have a lot of senior citizens who like to walk, so we wanted to create places for them to do it. We want to be a community where people come into town frequently to go to the local stores, hang out, and walk around.”
But Post and Funk also believe the four-phase walkable plan, when complete, will help foster new businesses and a better economy for the village and the area.
This summer’s “bridge project” involved more than a bridge. It was a major renovation of the downtown including new storm sewers, sidewalks, and street lighting. “We did about $5 million worth of improvements this year,” Post said, adding “about $400,000 came from village funds and the rest from state and federal sources. It’s one of the nicest streetscapes you’ll see around. We were especially pleased with the work of MDOT on the bridge.”
“I’m hoping it attracts more business in Hillman,” Funk said. “We’ve already had a big influx of people over the summer just to look at what we’ve done with the bridge, sidewalks, and light posts.
MDOT officials said they were also happy with how the bridge project turned out.
You may be asking, “I thought we were in a recession—how is Hillman able to do all this?” When it comes to improving their community—“being progressive,” “risk taking,” and even being a bit “aggressive’” are words often used by Hillman leaders.
“For a small community, we have a very aggressive village council, and we’re very progressive with our ideas.” Funk said. “We take chances and risks.”
Funk attributes much of the success to Post, village manager since 1995, and Post’s leadership role in the state. Post recently completed a three-year term on the Michigan Municipal League Board of Trustees, and has been involved in statewide municipal issues for years.
“What really helps us is that we’re an incorporated village and we have our own village manager—it really opens doors for us,” Funk said. “I’ve been on the council for 13 years and we’ve seen a lot of improvement in the village over that time.”
“Dave really knows what’s going on in terms of grants and other available funding,” Funk said, during a recent interview in Post’s office. “That helps make a lot of these projects possible. Being with the League has helped Dave stay informed on what’s going on in the state and what’s available to us as a community. Plus, his involvement gets our name out there more.”
Post quickly adds, “It also helps having a very engaged, progressive village council. Our council has been very supportive when it comes to getting things done. There’s an expectation in the community that something needs to happen every year.”
Matt Bach is communications director
for the League. You may reach him at
734-669-6317 or firstname.lastname@example.org.