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In My Opinion

Growth is good – when managed

 

The story of struggle that rural communities have waged to hang on to the character of their communities has been told for the last several decades.  Many times, as surrounding big-city developers and the modern-tech world have moved in, those stories have not had happy endings, either.

 

Years of suburbanization, big box stores, national franchises, and mega malls within driving distance have left small-town America with empty Main Street storefronts, deteriorating infrastructure and little or no appeal for local business entrepreneurs or just people looking to move to a quiet, pleasant, and secure community.

 

After all those frustrating decades of employing the latest and greatest strategy to revitalize and foster growth, small communities may today be on the cusp of a true renaissance.  Modern communication, highly-efficient travel, and new business models that reward start-up innovators and entrepreneurs mean that business today does not need to be located in major metropolitan areas.  Business – and life – can be conducted and lived from almost anywhere.  Today, that means people are opting for the qualities that small town America offers.

 

Development is on the upswing, especially in Hastings and surrounding Barry County.  In fact, a housing “mini-boom” is occurring just to keep up with the demand from companies and the people who want to work for them and a chance to live here.  Based on national trends, small towns are ideal places for community regeneration. The cost of living and doing business in small towns is usually less expensive than their larger counterparts, such as the price of real estate, insurance, childcare, general services and business needs which make small towns ideal for development.

 

At a recent State of the City presentation before the Hastings Rotary Club, Hastings Mayor David Tossava and City Manager Jerry Czarnecki reported: “The state of the city is good.” In their presentation, the two city leaders mentioned that the city is busy updating the master plan dealing with downtown, housing, industry and infrastructure.

 

“The section that is getting the most attention and will make the most impact is the housing section,” said Tossava, mentioning four proposed housing projects currently underway that could increase housing stock by 200 to 300 units.  Hastings hasn’t had a major housing development since the Meadowstone apartments and pre-manufactured homes project in the late 1980s. That project offered an option for young families wanting to locate to the Hastings area and seniors looking to move out of their homes into high-quality apartments or condos.

 

Currently, most of the new housing construction has been in Middleville and surrounding townships. The lack of housing growth in other areas of the county has become a concern because it is impacting our schools, which, in recent years, have seen a decline in enrollment, putting pressure on districts to compete against each other for a shrinking pool of students.

 

The interest in our community and the growth it’s generating from eager developers is a promising possibility.  We’ve seen it before, however. And, from the wisdom and foresight proffered by the visionary Barry County Futuring Committee in the late 1980s, our community leaders should be cognizant of controlling the growth that we – and not outside developers – see for our future.

 

Back in 1987, big-city developers had grand plans to build on some of the most fertile farmland in the entire state, a vein of soil that runs diagonally through Barry County.  Don Drummond, who just passed away on Feb. 29, created the Futuring Committee and led the effort to coordinate that development while maintaining the rural nature of our home. 

 

So working together to find a formula for development is a must if we expect to protect what we have and still encourage growth in Hastings and throughout the county with expectations of attracting people to live in one of our communities.

 

Recently, the Hastings Downtown Development group held a forum to discuss possible upgrades in the downtown business district. The current streetscape was installed more than 30 years ago and is showing its age, DDA members said.  In response, the DDA hired McKenna and Wightman, a Kalamazoo-based consulting firm, to prepare a streetscape design including trees, sidewalks and street improvements, and invited local business leaders to take part in the planning process.

 

On March 5, the consultants brought in Robert Gibbs, urbanist and president of Gibbs Planning Group from Birmingham, Michigan, to discuss what he saw during his visit to Hastings, which he described as “impressive.”   His words should be carefully considered by community leaders as our “renaissance” evolves.

 

“You should really be proud of yourself,” Gibbs said. “You built your library downtown. That’s major. You have a library and a city hall and a cinema.  Many of the things that were taken for granted by developers just a few decades ago exist in your downtown.”

 

“Hastings has great walkability,” added Gibbs, which means that residents are within walking distance of key destinations and attractions such as parks, stores, city and county buildings and a public library.

 

Gibbs showed those in attendance examples of innovative design and development, explaining the impact good planning and design can have on a community.  His remarks were consistent with planning experts who suggest that smart growth strategies make a big difference in how rural communities achieve their goals for growth and development while protecting the rural character of the community.

 

Gibbs told audience members that Hastings has lots of opportunity for growth; it just has to be protective of what it has and how it develops in the years to come.  According to Gibbs, the market for small towns is especially interesting to 25-year-olds and seniors, who are both looking for luxury apartments within walking distance of a “Starbucks and the library.”

 

Hastings is the kind of place they want to move to, he noted. “They like real places like this.”

 

Hastings and other small towns throughout the county have a unique opportunity for growth due to their location near major metropolitan centers, and the existing character of their communities – we just need to agree on a plan for the future that will provide the level of growth and sustainability that will attract high quality development.

 

Growth just doesn’t happen and, as we learned in the 1980s and 1990’s from the Futuring movement, growth that’s left up to the developers isn’t always in the best interests of the community. Good growth should be intentional, with thoughtful planning and strong support in the community.

If we expect high-quality, thoughtful development, then we have to heed the words with which Gibbs concluded his presentation to the local gathering on March 5: “Embrace your history, decide what you want to be and don’t dumb it down.”

 

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