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A Quiet Force For Cool Cities

David Hollister designs a promising but untested economic strategy

May 6, 2004 | By Charlene Crowell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Governor Jennifer Granholm is depending on her economic director, David Hollister, to transform the Cool Cities program into a powerful engine for statewide prosperity.

After David Hollister spent almost all of the 1990s reviving Lansing as its Democratic mayor, Governor Jennifer M. Granholm asked him to do the same thing for Michigan. Mr. Hollister spent the first few months in the administration outlining his thoughts in a white paper that called for reviving the state’s cities as a central element for building Michigan’s prosperity and for establishing a new state department to carry out the work. Ms. Granholm embraced both ideas and has staked much of her political future on making Mr. Hollister’s strategy work.

Mr. Hollister, a soft-spoken and bearded man in his mid-50s who tends to favor tweed or corduroy sports jackets, looks very much like the high school history teacher he once was. He began his political career as a county commissioner, then served as a state legislator before becoming mayor of Michigan’s capital city. He won his final mayoral term in 2001 by a landslide, testament to the public accolades he received while developing a three-tiered strategy of infrastructure investment, neighborhood improvement, and economic development to generate over $2.9 billion in investments in a city whose best days many thought had long since passed.

Mr. Hollisters latest job as director of the state Department of Labor and Economic Growth puts him at the center of an almost experimental economic development strategy that heavily relies on Smart Growth principles – urban revitalization, environmental conservation, open space preservation — to generate new jobs, build careers, prompt entrepreneurship, and spur innovation, particularly in Michigan’s cities and inner-ring suburbs. We caught up with him while he and his staff were overseeing a competitive granting process that launches a new facet of Governor Granholm’s “Cool Cities” initiative. 

INSTITUTE: What did your department discover through its surveys about what people want in a cool city?

DAVID HOLLISTER: It’s been remarkably consistent. People want cities to be walkable. They want mixed-use development so that residential and commercial are closer together. They want lofts and arts and Internet technology and diversity. It’s really that consistency that impressed me the most — whatever the forums, groups, or locations.

We are not dictating a top-down policy on cool cities. We are trying to support a bottom-up initiative that the governor will hold out as one of her key initiatives — reinvestment in the urban areas. It’s a long-term goal; but we don’t have any preconceived notions.

I was in Highland Park recently. The mayor was very proud that he had appointed an advisory committee on cool cities for Highland Park. Just the fact that he was proud that he could use that as his rallying point locally is very empowering. That community is better off already, regardless of whether they win designation.

INSTITUTE: For the spirit that was generated?

HOLLISTER: The spirit, and the planning, and the “noodling”: How do we market ourselves? How do partner with the public and private sectors? How do we compete? What is our advantage?  How do we refine it? That’s going on in more than 150 communities — each one proclaiming to be a cool city — and we’re thrilled.

There will be twelve awardees for the catalyst grants. But we have developed a whole toolbox of services that go beyond the $100,000 grants. There are other communities that are going to have identified needs that we will now be able to tell, ‘Well, while you’re not one of the first twelve, you are, in our concept of Commerce Centers, a center of development.’

Maybe it’s a river walk, maybe it’s a bike path, maybe it’s some kind of streetscape grant, maybe it’s something through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority they will be eligible for.    

INSTITUTE: You said at the news conference that this project has generated more interest than you’ve seen in 30 years of public service. Is it that bottom-up approach that creates energy at the community level?

HOLLISTER: Partly. Another part is embracing reinvestment in our urban centers. When I was a legislator for 20 years we really didn’t have an urban policy. There hasn’t been, since Lyndon Johnson. This generation of young people loves urban settings. So, it’s created an enormous groundswell of support and enthusiasm and attachment to the strategy.

INSTITUTE: Is each community defining its own vision?

HOLLISTER: Absolutely. That’s the bottom line.

INSTITUTE: And then the plans would emerge from that vision?

HOLLISTER: The plans are to invest in walkable communities, in strategies, in loft development, mixed income housing, information technology development. Some communities will take a commercial strategy; others will take an arts strategy. Others will take a different strategy. We don’t really have a preconceived notion. As long as they’re moving in that direction and are consistent with the broad policy initiatives of the governor, we’ll be supportive. 

INSTITUTE: And the community partnerships?

HOLLISTER: The more collaboration the better. For example, Marquette wants to collaborate with Northern Michigan University on wireless technology. But they wanted to do a walkable community, they had an arts piece, they had a private sector piece. The more partners you have, the stronger your proposal will be viewed, uniting public and private, state and local, federal, community … the more you can maximize your dollar, the more you can bring multiple and diverse partners, the more diverse the partners, the better.

INSTITUTE: You also mention persistence. Why is that important?

HOLLISTER: There is no such thing as straight-line development.  You go forward; you go back one; you move three ahead. And whether it was attracting General Motors or building a minor league baseball operation when I was mayor, nothing went as smoothly and as strategically as we had planned.

But if you have a plan and if you have partners and if you’re persistent — just keep working that plan with your partners and you will be successful. I sponsored one bill in the Legislature that took 16 years to pass. If you get discouraged after the first couple times you get whacked, you’re out of the game. You have to expect that there will be glitches and controversies that you hadn’t expected.

INSTITUTE:  How was the turnout at the pre-bid conferences about applying for cool city designations?

HOLLISTER: We had over 700; it surpassed our expectations.

INSTITUTE: Were they local officials or businesses or community-based organizations?

HOLLISTER: Yes, yes, and yes: Community development people, economic development people, artists, city managers, legislative staff, a legislator: It was very diverse. I expected that part. I just didn’t expect the volume. Then we had good media coverage in every market. This is one of the most energizing initiatives I’ve ever been involved in. 

INSTITUTE: What kinds of questions did people have?

HOLLISTER: Well, first, they were impressed. In Marquette, for example, they complimented us for having all the various departments together in the same room — in the UP no less — saying the same thing, answering questions, not being defensive but trying to work toward a common application form so that communities would have access to the toolbox whether they’re designated or not. People were impressed with the array of services being presented as options for their communities.

They want to know about the selection criteria, the timing of the catalyst grants, and the technical things. But more importantly, it was “Wow. This is impressive that the state would come and do this.”

Especially to offer these services to people who will not be designated: I think that will have an even bigger impact over time than the original twelve getting the grants. There are going to be communities who are not winners who are going to get services that will allow them to go forward with projects, whether it’s a streetscape or a facade improvement or a bike path or river walk extension.

INSTITUTE:  How did the staff react to all the people, all the questions?

HOLLISTER: They were thrilled. The excitement came from the participants. It came from the presenters. And it came from people who were just observing. People were working together across department lines, rolling up their sleeves and being energized further by people in the community. The governor’s passion, involvement, and follow-up also sent a signal: “Let’s go through this together.” It is symbiotic and an empowering relation between the governor and state employees.

INSTITUTE: When you were Lansing’s mayor, what did you envision for Old Town?

HOLLISTER: When I first ran for mayor, I said we would make Lansing a world-class city. That was a stretch. People said, “Don’t go for world-class; go for all-American. All-American is achievable.”

I wasn’t interested in “achievable,” I was interested in “stretch”. We have a world-class university, a world-class manufacturer in General Motors, a state capital. There’s no reason we can’t be world class.  

When I got to city hall we only had $1.5 million in economic development funds. So we had to be very strategic. We picked the entrance to the state capitol, our commercial strip downtown that was about a third vacant, and Old Town. Every community has such an older center with historic buildings. There was a core group of urban entrepreneurs there with a passion for restoration. The city did gap financing.

Our controversy with the first one was that a gay individual wanted a loan and some council members objected. My only question was, “Is the money green? Did they bring money to the table? If the money is clean, I’m not interested in ethnicity or sexuality or nationality. Let’s go.”

We got over that hurdle, did a small apartment project, then went into a couple of buildings, then into art, and then buying a church and a bar. It just took off.

INSTITUTE: How many investment dollars went into Old Town?

HOLLISTER: About half a million dollars in a city loan attracted technical assistance from Washington. We multiplied that initial stake with another $25-30 million of new private investment that continues even today. Every building is now owner-occupied and has some kind of development. The convention bureau is now over there; the river walk has gone up. Old Town captures virtually every concept of cool cities: Loft development, façade improvement, public-private partnership, walkable city, arts, culture, high tech, historic preservation. It is really the poster child.

INSTITUTE: Does the Cool Cities initiative move the state towards the recommendations the governor’s Michigan Land Use Leadership Council made about statewide land use goals, redevelopment readiness, and commerce centers?

HOLLISTER: It’s central to it. The council says we’re going to reinvest in our urban centers where we have infrastructure, which is one of our major strategies. If you’re going to save your green space, you’ve got to invest in your urban centers. The governor’s directive to department heads on locating new facilities in urban centers is symbolically important. All of us as agency directors now have to look at choosing an urban center first. The commerce centers, regional collaboration — we’re working on all of that.

INSTITUTE: In Detroit, a lot of the investment in the Midtown area is in upscale housing. But how does affordable housing fit into the Cool Cities goal of mixed income housing?

HOLLISTER: Because the legislature acted on fast-track authority for tax-reverted properties means we can get to this issue quickly in Detroit. I know when I was mayor, it wouldn’t be unusual to take five to seven years to get control of a piece of such property. The land use council said fixing this was a top priority. The Legislature made it a top priority and now legislation is enacted. We’re now assembling staff, bringing on an executive director, and moving forward vigorously on that.

INSTITUTE: The Governor’s commitment is to do catalyst grants for three years. In the fourth year, if your dreams came true, what would we see in Michigan that we don’t have now?

HOLLISTER: We’ve got to get things done as fast as we can because we can’t assume a second term. My dream is that the mayor of Highland Park proclaims himself and his community to be a cool city by the year 2007. And that Marquette, Traverse City and Ann Arbor and Lansing and Saginaw have physical, concrete measurable projects accomplished that make them cool.

And that Mason and Eaton Rapids and little communities can market themselves as cool cities because they’ve got historic preservation and walkable communities and streetscaping and loft developments that are attractive to young people. And that my son says, “I’m moving back to Michigan because that’s where it is I want to be to raise my family because it’s a cool place to work.”

And that when our kids graduate from our best universities, they don’t look to Chicago or Boston or Phoenix or Los Angeles to escape, looking for a cool city. Instead, they say: “ I want to be in Detroit. That’s where the action is. That’s where the centers of auto manufacturing and high tech research and micro-technology are. Michigan is the entrepreneurial state and I want to be there.”

This is the magnet idea that the governor has proclaimed as our ultimate goal: That people will want to be in Michigan — that’s where the action is.

Charlene Crowell directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s transportation and Detroit projects. Reach her at Charlene@mlui.org.

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