DROSCHA: The story of self-investment

CASSOPOLIS — On Thursday, Dec. 27, the Cassopolis Village Council voted unanimously to approve several economic development projects for downtown Cassopolis. Projects will include a new municipal building, a public recreational beach area on Stone Lake, a boardwalk along the lake and downtown, significant work to sidewalks along Broadway and more.

Voting on the projects followed a report from a financial auditor from the state who gave the Village Council a good report regarding the status of village finances, as well as applause for the work that has been done to cut spending and save money. The report was a greenlight for the village administration and council to implement designs and projects from the village master plan, as well as the Imagine Cass project.

There is uncertainty and skepticism in the Cassopolis community, however. A few concerned citizens took to social media, voicing doubts about the necessity for such projects in a town that has little economic growth and investment, and a stagnant population at best.

“Dressing up a town with bad schools and no jobs? Really?” commented one reader.

“…it will be a waste of money to spruce up the main drag, when there is nothing to stop for,” commented another reader.

The commenters raise a valid concern that is common among residents in towns that have come to standstills. Questions circle and criticisms arise.

“What should we do with budget surpluses?” “Why should we invest when no one is coming here?” “Nothing has changed in years. Why try now?”

When I came to work for Leader Publications two months ago for a new staff writing position, it was to my excitement when the general manager, Ambrosia Neldon, informed me the position would include a significant amount of community reporting. As it happened, I was assigned to cover the communities of Edwardsburg and Cassopolis, two villages not so dissimilar to my own home communities in another part of the Mitten. I had been doing community reporting for several towns and villages for two years, so stepping into another area of a similar size and demographic felt not only comfortable, but exciting.

Community news reporting may not be the crème dele crème of reporting opportunities for most journalists, but it has been an exciting time for community reporting in the last few years for a several reasons. One of the most significant reasons for me has been the economic development of small towns that are finally making the climb out of the pit of the Great Recession of 2007.

Rural towns were already in trouble before the housing market crashed. Longstanding industries, factories and manufacturing plants that were major employers across the country, and certainly through the Midwest, had been slipping into oblivion for several decades. Small towns that relied on those employers were already hurting before the economy tanked, and when it did many of those towns fell into an economic existential despair. Jobs were hard to come by, people left to find work and smaller communities were left without plans for recovery.

But as the economy has gradually made an upswing in the last several years (largely due to the efforts of a prior administration), some smaller towns are grasping for the economic glimmer of hope to revive their communities. Small businesses are opening in hurting areas. Grassroots projects are gaining moment to decorate communities with art and amenities. Large corporations are choosing to open plants and operations in small towns. Niche markets are popping up to make small towns tourist destinations. As community reporting goes, the last few years have been goldmine of stories for smaller newspapers.

“What does this have to do with Cassopolis?”

Cassopolis is at a crucial turning point. For a village of its size that was in hot financial waters as little as four years ago to make a significant financial turnaround to spending cuts, balanced budgets and money in the bank is impressive to say the least, especially as the dark cloud of recession is still close in the economic review. Many towns, some larger than Cassopolis, have not made that kind of turnaround. I have reported on some of them.

But I have also been fortunate to report on some towns that made strides as united communities — towns that put their resources toward becoming more business and consumer friendly, having more recreational amenities, providing more opportunities for youth, fixing up forgotten spaces and opening new areas for development and growth. Cassopolis is one of those places with untapped resources and immense potential. Empty storefronts are not burdens, they are blank canvases for entrepreneurs. Natural resources are not empty expanses of wilderness, they are invitations for exploration. Cash in the bank is not a waste of space, it’s an opportunity for wise spending and investment.

As Cassopolis moves forward in the next couple of years with the economic development projects approved by the council, the point is not to spend money just because it’s there. The projects represent the simple economic principal that self-investment leads to buy-in and further outside investment.

Updating amenities, expanding community resource and opening untapped resources expresses not only community pride, but it’s an open invitation to for those looking for a place to settle, whether for opening a business or starting a family. The development projects are also invitations for people who already reside in Cassopolis to be a part of the next chapter of the community story — to say, “Look, this is the part that I contributed.”

Observing the story is not just for reporters.

ADAM DROSCHA is a reporter for Leader Publications and writer for Michiana Life and South Bend Life Magazines. He can be reached by adam.droscha@leaderpub.com or (517) 575-9200.

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