Ottawa planners contemplate tapping into crowdfunding tool

The Ottawa County Planning Commission is considering leveraging a crowdfunding platform launched by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. as an additional fundraising tool to engage community members in supporting public improvement projects and to earn matching funds from the state.

During an Ottawa County Planning Commission meeting earlier this month, economic development consultant Chris Byrnes spoke about his experience using a state-level crowdfunding program known as Public Spaces Community Places.

Currently serving as a partner in the Grand Rapids-based Code Red Pyramid Project, Byrnes is using the crowdfunding tool to gain community support in launching several new initiatives for the educational hub space.

“The state of Michigan and the Michigan Economic Development Corp. worked with the Michigan Municipal League to help launch three crowdfunding sites, which each have specific targets,” said Byrnes. “One is called Patronicity, which is the one I spoke to the Ottawa County Planning Commission about, and is a platform geared toward funding ‘place-making’ projects.”

In June 2014, the Public Spaces Community Places program was launched as a collaborative effort among the MEDC, Michigan Municipal League, and the Michigan-based Patronicity platform. The program was designed to provide a creative funding tool for public improvement projects in Michigan communities by not only engaging residents’ support but also having the opportunity to receive a matching grant from MEDC.

The three crowdfunding platforms are: Localstake, which focuses on startup businesses; Patronicity, supporting public spaces and community places; and Fundrise, which is geared toward real estate projects.

Mark Knudsen, director of the Ottawa County Planning Commission, said Byrnes used to be on the planning commission and was asked to speak to the commission about the platform as a possible new funding source for countywide projects.

“It seemed as though it was innovative and new,” said Knudsen. “We haven’t narrowed down the specific projects we would be working on, but the planning commission was interested in potentially pursuing some sort of avenue that would allow us to tap into this funding source.”

The grant and crowdfunding program is available to municipalities and nonprofit projects focusing on revitalizing public spaces and initiatives, such as green space development, access to public amenities, farmers markets, community kitchens and alley rehabilitation. Projects reaching their fundraising goals through pledge support have the opportunity to receive a matching grant from MEDC of up to $100,000.

Upon submitting a public project for funding, Byrnes said an organization can ask the state to review the proposal for the potential funding match, and the concept behind the initiative highlights a big goal of economic development in the state.

“The theory is, in order to attract and retain the best and brightest people in our communities, it has been shown people connect best in a new community or with their community through the places they like,” said Byrnes. “So those places are what make a community special, and by enhancing specific places like your downtown or your parks or even specific businesses, you enhance the community’s ability to attract and retain talented people.”

Based on the positive feedback from those attending the Ottawa County Planning Commission, Knudsen said staff members will return to the next commission meeting in two months with recommendations for potential projects, marketing initiatives and fundraising goals.

“It is really a low-risk opportunity because you can put your project out there and the only investment you have in asking for funds is to put together some sort of marketing campaign,” said Knudsen. “We are involved in a lot of different things: We have a water resource study going on in the county; we do economic development and work with entrepreneurs. We really need to focus on what particular program might best fit into this funding opportunity and what would the community potentially support.”

With the variety of projects the commission is involved with and constantly seeking alternative means for funding, Byrnes said one of the benefits of the crowdfunding program is providing an opportunity to raise financial support for smaller projects that may not warrant compiling a written grant proposal or allocating tax dollars.

“The planning department helps pull together a lot of these community projects, and this is sort of another tool in their toolbox to be able to have cool place-making projects done in the community,” said Byrnes. “They seemed very interested.” 

One potential idea for the crowdfunding platform would be to raise additional funds for the countywide Water Resources Study, according to Knudsen. The study was conducted to identify the groundwater resource status in the county in response to several emerging issues, such as unreliable groundwater quantity in certain areas, impaired groundwater quality and isolated clusters of basement flooding.

“It could add additional components to a project that would be considered un-fundable through other methods,” said Knudsen, in reference to the benefit of the crowdfunding tool.

“We have a certain amount of funding for test wells and monitoring equipment in those wells. Potentially we could raise additional dollars to put in more monitoring equipment and additional wells to extract more data and improve the results of the study if the residents of the community felt it was important.”

The Ottawa County Planning Commission is still in a preliminary stage of considering the crowdfunding platform and anticipates compiling a list of potential projects that could benefit from the creative funding program.

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