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Village of Edwardsburg and Ontwa Township Work Together to Become a Walkable Destination
By Chuck Eckenstahler
Location: Southwest Michigan
“If you don’t dream, you never get anything done.” This is a quote by Ontwa Township Supervisor John Brielmaier, but it’s also the underlying vision of a cooperative project by two municipalities located near the Michigan-Indiana border. Dreaming big and then making it happen is the mantra of the Uptown Corridor Improvement Authority run jointly by the village of Edwardsburg and Ontwa Township. The two communities are working together to form a commercial town center that would serve not only as a resident and visitor shopping venue, but also to become the focal point for the entire Edwardsburg community.
The basic purpose of a corridor improvement authority is to allow older communities with business areas in need of restoration to obtain the economic development tools to make the necessary improvements. The Corridor Improvement Authority Act, passed in 2005, provides communities a means to fund public improvements such as new streets, lighting, and sidewalks, without raising taxes.
Under the Act, a municipality must agree to expedite local permitting and inspections, and modify its master plan to provide for walkable, non-motorized interconnections, including sidewalks and streetscapes throughout the area. A corridor improvement authority is created and operated in a manner similar to a downtown development authority. Once created, it can establish a tax increment finance plan, levy a special assessment, and issue revenue bonds and notes. The Act requires a municipality to determine that it is “necessary for the best interests of the public to redevelop its commercial corridors and to promote economic growth.” The Act provides a means to make change happen and is especially useful when the business district spans two governmental jurisdictions.
Due to encouragement by several business leaders seeking a public-private partnership, the joint CIA was formed in July 2009 by action of the village of Edwardsburg and Ontwa Township. There were several people responsible for the formation of the CIA—the hard working people who first created the Edwardsburg Uptown Improvement Association, which was instrumental in the eventual formation of the joint Uptown CIA.
The intent of the CIA is to carry out a program of public and private improvements, laying the foundation for a compact, walkable, landscaped shopping and social gathering center. The CIA’s vision of an improved local job base within an attractive landscaped setting was accepted as an achievable vision that would promote and unite regional cooperation throughout the greater community.
According to local businessman architect Tony Leininger who sponsored the organizational effort and now serves as a CIA member, “recognizing that over 50 percent of our residents are employed and routinely shop in Elkhart Indiana, we want to create a destination where our residents and visitors will want to shop and engage in other social activities.” He adds that “going to the village and township with the idea of a cooperative joint CIA naturally fit our goal of a public-private means to accomplish this goal.”
What is truly special about this effort is the unique cooperation between the village and township, particularly because only five of the 138 parcels of land in the CIA are located in the township. There was never a question of the need for cooperation or the need to create communitywide commitment. Guided by Village President Jim Robinson and Township Supervisor John Brielmaier, with funds advanced to the CIA by the township board, the CIA was formed and the Development TIF Plan adopted in less than a year.
The ambitious plan calls for over $8 million of infrastructure, streetscaping, building façade improvements including a yet to be designed clock tower funded by CIA-TIF funds, grants, private donations and local budget allocations.
“We have been told that we are a little unusual with this type of village-township cooperation,” notes Brielmaier. The Uptown CIA plans to accomplish its goal of making downtown Edwardsburg a walkable destination with these tools:
PHYSICAL STREETSCAPE IMPROVEMENTS
8,610 lineal feet of streetscape improvements including installation of streetlights, sidewalks, street landscaping and decorative benches, brick planters, banners, decorative concrete stamping, and underground location of utilities, where required.
BUILDING FAÇADE IMPROVEMENTS
Funding paint and supplies to private property owners for approximately six buildings in the district, and providing design and implementation funds for façade and building renovation grants and loans designed to obtain a unified architectural appearance in the CIA district, including renovation of the mill façade.
M-62/US-12 INTERSECTION ENHANCEMENTS
Addition of crosswalks and streetscape improvements including retaining walls, plantings, signage and lighting.
The construction of a clock tower with a kiosk below it in the central business district. The clock tower will be the “anchor” of the downtown improvement plan.
Joint funding with existing businesses located within the CIA district enabled a promotional campaign that included advertising, marketing, and preparation of promotional brochures. The CIA has budgeted $10,000 for marketing purposes.
CASS COUNTY GATEWAY ENTRY FEATURE
An entryway feature including signage at four locations entering the CIA District. The plan, based on sound community planning principles, was prepared under the watchful eyes of strong political and civil leadership with the understanding that they are all in this together, and something needs to be done now to ensure future communitywide economic success.
We don’t think this cooperation is unusual, “we just do what’s right for the community” notes Jim Robinson.
Successful corridor planning is more than pretty pictures; it’s a function of creating a vision supported by a realistic financing strategy that becomes a driving force for change.
While leadership seems self-evident as an important factor, it can’t be taken for granted. Both civic and political leaders visibly displayed a willingness to come together and discuss a bold vision that would become a driver of change. Without this leadership and vision, the effort would have been unable to move beyond the parochialism, conflict, and inertia which continue to weigh upon many similar projects.
Chuck Eckenstahler is a consultant to McKenna Associates, and teaches economic development subjects in the Graduate School of Business at Purdue North Central. He can be reached at
219-861-2077 or firstname.lastname@example.org.