Making progress: Cassopolis gains boost in efforts to revitalize its downtown

Published 5:48 pm Thursday, January 23, 2014

Unlike titles such as “mayor” or “chief,” the designation of “Michigan Main Street Associate Level Community” lacks punchiness or immediate recognition by your average citizen.

For officials with Cassopolis, though, the new title bestowed upon the village means a great deal when it comes to their efforts to increase the prominence of the community.

Cassopolis is one of eight state communities selected this year by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority for the designation. The program will allow the village to receive special training on marketing and development, as well as give them greater access to grant money for construction projects.

The new designation is a boon for the community that has already spent the past year trying to redevelop its downtown district, said Village Manager Cindy LaGrow.

“We just reestablished our Downtown Development Authority last year,” LaGrow said. “We want to see our downtown become this vibrant gem of Cass County we know it can be.”

The community received the designation the first time it applied for it, which is quite rare, LaGrow said. It took the city of Niles two attempts to finally gain the designation, she added.

“I didn’t want to go through that,” she said. “I felt like if we didn’t do our best putting together our application, I wasn’t doing a good job. I wanted to get it on our first attempt.”

The village formed an 11-person committee dedicated toward gaining the “Main Street” designation, meeting for four months prior to submitting the application.

The committee included a number of prominent local officials, including Cass County Commissioner Bernie Williamson and County Clerk Monica Kennedy.

“We have a dedicated group of village and area residents who really care about our downtown and our community,” LaGrow said.

The actual creation of the application took 45 days, with the committee members assembling photos and written documents highlighting what improvements the village needed and the potential the community has for growth.

Helping them through the process were Juan Ganum and Lisa Croteau with the City of Niles, who provided them with advice on how to best word their application for approval, LaGrow said.

“Niles has had this designation for a number of years,” she said. “Not only have they established a number of events that has brought visitors downtown, but they’ve also used it to help improve their community.”

Now that the village is part of the program, members of the Main Street committee will have the opportunity to participate in a number of training seminars, the first of which takes place next month.

There, members will get a chance to learn techniques and strategies to attract new visitors and residents into the community, LaGrow said.

“More importantly, it puts you in touch with communities that have been previously designated,” she said. “You can learn from them what works and what doesn’t. You don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel.”

The program will also help Cassopolis in receiving grant money to help fund any future development programs.

LaGrow is already hoping the village will be eligible for a community block grant that will allow them to address some of the downtown’s infrastructural needs, such as improvements to lighting and signage.

“It makes the community more inviting,” LaGrow said. “That’s important if you want to have a downtown that’s full of stores, that makes residents feel comfortable and safe.”

Since word spread of the village’s addition to the Main Street program, many residents, both current and former, have let LaGrow and other officials know they are excited about Cassopolis’s future, the village manager said.

“The potential is there for us to succeed and to have some phenomenal growth,” she said. “We’re excited about taking the next step.”