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Local Business-Owners Bring Placemaking to Harbor Springs

By Kathryn Breighner

Location: Harbor Springs, Michigan
Population: 1,194

In March 2011, eight business leaders from Harbor Springs attended the Placemaking Summit hosted by the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments in Traverse City featuring Fred Kent, president of the Project for Public Spaces. The Summit turned out to be a game changer for Harbor Springs as it launched a very active Placemaking Committee.

Harbor Springs has been a destination for visitors and permanent and seasonal residents for decades. In recent years, the downturn in the economy combined with lifestyle changes in seasonal and tourist populations have led many business owners in Harbor Springs to look for innovative ways to create a more vibrant downtown and surrounding community.

harbor springs
A group of Harbor Springs business leaders attended a placemaking summit hosted by the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments. The Summit turned out to be a game changer for Harbor Springs, launching a very active placemaking committee.

Keep Harbor Springs Special
“Those of us who went to the Placemaking Summit are all business owners, community leaders, and residents,” said Kathryn Breighner, co-chairperson of the Harbor Springs Placemaking Committee. “We wanted to learn about new ideas for downtown communities and came away with excitement about how special Harbor Springs is and what we can do to make it an even better place. During the past year, we came to see placemaking as more than a business-creating concept, but as a way of furthering Harbor Springs as a place that is special for everyone who lives or visits here.”

The Harbor Springs Placemaking Committee is not connected directly to any organization. Representatives from the city, the Harbor Springs Area Chamber of Commerce, and HARBOR, Inc. (a regional planning organization) are ex-officio members of the committee. The committee meets monthly with this mission: to inspire both residents and visitors to identify the area as home, and to foster a sense of pride and responsibility by facilitating communication and opportunities with the community.

Defining Placemaking
With many in the community not understanding what placemaking is, the committee defines it as a multi-faceted approach related to planning design and management of public spaces; listening to those who work, live, and play in that space; creating a common vision; capitalizing on community assets, inspirations and potential; and creating good public spaces promoting health and happiness.

The committee invited assistance from the Northern Lakes Economic Alliance (NLEA) and Michigan State University Extension. With the help of NLEA, the committee held a “Downtown Development Authority 101” session for the business community.

“In May 2011, we hosted a full house at a community forum held in the Harbor Springs City Hall for a strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats (SWOT) issues identification session,” said Jody Ewbank, co-chair of the Placemaking Committee. “A month later we held another session to present the top five topics and outline the many organizations in Harbor Springs that are working on these topics.”

Project for Public Spaces Visits
In August 2011, Fred Kent visited Harbor Springs and spoke to several hundred people about placemaking and Harbor Springs. Fred’s visit was funded by the Chamber, HARBOR, Inc., the Petoskey-Harbor Springs Area Community Foundation, city of Harbor Springs, and the Bank of Northern Michigan.

“Fred brought his enthusiasm to Harbor Springs and explained to the community how important placemaking is in making a place one where people want to live, work, and play,” said Scott Herceg, executive director of the Harbor Springs Chamber of Commerce.

harbor springs

The committee defines placemaking as a multi-faceted approach related to planning design and management of public spaces; listening to those who work, live, and play in that space; creating a common vision; capitalizing on community assets, inspirations and potential; and creating good public spaces promoting health and happiness.

The DDA Resurfaces
As a result of the interest that the placemaking process brought to Harbor Springs, the long dormant Downtown Development Authority (DDA) was revitalized in the summer of 2011. “The DDA had not met since 2003,” said Tom Richards, Harbor Springs city manager. “The DDA now meets regularly and is working on three projects: gathering updated economic indicator reports for our community, writing a new DDA plan, and overseeing possible changes on our waterfront, with the goal of creating a more flexible, multi-purpose gathering space for use by the general public and for community events.”

“With the DDA back in action and focused on our downtown, the Placemaking Committee’s role will be to keep placemaking concepts in the forefront as the DDA considers projects,” said Breighner who also is vice chairperson of the DDA. With the city reviewing the master plan in 2012, the committee will work to keep placemaking integral to the plan.

Placemaking is not intended to simply bring visitors to communities, but to create and maintain special places for people to live and work. “Harbor Springs has a different business and residential climate than many Michigan communities because we have both year-round and seasonal residents,” said Breighner. “It is important for all who call Harbor Springs home to be a part of the placemaking conversation. There are some who do not like the idea of any change. It is a constant challenge to remind people that placemaking is not about changing the character of Harbor Springs, but about focusing on our strengths while we create and sustain public spaces that build our community while strengthening what is already special using placemaking principals as our guide.”

“The buzz that took place because of our public gatherings helped spur decisions for two new restaurants in Harbor Springs,” said Ewbank. “Placemaking efforts have also begun in Petoskey to host a Placemaking Summit in May at North Central Michigan College.”

“In the past year, hundreds of people have been included in community conversations about the future of Harbor Springs. One of our responsibilities is to connect ideas with people that want to make them happen. The Placemaking Committee’s role is not to complete projects or take stands on issues, but to connect people with projects that further placemaking principals. For example, one of the early wishes by the community was for better broadband service. HARBOR, Inc. has been actively working on that project, so we connected others wanting to work on this project with HARBOR, Inc.”

“At some point in time when placemaking principles are fully embraced in Harbor Springs, we might be less visible than now,” said Breighner. “But until then, we have a lot of work to do.”

Kathryn Breighner is the publisher of Concierge Publications and co-chairperson of the Harbor Springs Placemaking Committee.



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