Cassopolis, Edwardsburg work with MSU to piece together a picture of the future

Separated by a little less than 10 miles of road along M-62, Cassopolis and Edwardsburg are two villages that have more in common than meets the eye.

Not only do both have population sizes fewer than 2,000 residents, according to the most recently available census estimates, but both are also located on picturesque lakes and are considered popular summer-home destinations for city-dwellers and weekend warriors. In addition to their superficial similarities, they share a similar history. Once thriving towns, changes in the American landscape have led to years of stagnant economic growth.

Now, leaders from both communities have both taken steps to course correct and make a new picture for their respective communities.

In 2018, the village of Cassopolis teamed up with the Cass County Board of Commissioners to Imagine Cass by partnering with Michigan State University’s Sustainable Built Environment Initiative Team. The program, formed by the university in 2013, is designed to help Michigan municipalities address physical planning, design and land use concerns. The SBEI program, which has worked with more than 100 municipalities in Michigan, including Allegan, Marquette and Cadillac, hosts community input sessions and incorporates that input and other data into plans, digital renderings and suggestions to help communities revitalize themselves.

In 2019, the Edwardsburg followed suit, also working with MSU to create the Edwardsburg Vision Project.

“We knew this was the right time for Cass County,” said Roseann Marchetti, a Cass County Commissioner who was instrumental in bringing the MSU program to the area. She represents Ontwa Township, Edwardsburg and Mason Township. “We knew this was the right time to create a better future for the community.”

Imagining a new downtown Cassopolis

Dirty. Quiet. Stagnant. Vacant.

These words, written out on yellow sticky notes, covered a wall inside of the Cass County Council on Aging during a February 2018 session with the MSU team. The words were used by current residents to describe the village of Cassopolis as they currently saw it.

On a different wall, a separate set of sticky notes, featuring words like booming, clean and bustling, painted a different picture. Those words described the future residents would like to see for Cassopolis.

“This is a visioning process. We want you to envision the future,” said Wayne Beyea, a senior specialist with MSU’s program. “This isn’t the time to be shy. If there is something you have always wanted, say it. We want to gather as many ideas as possible.”

That meeting was the first of several hosted during the Imagine Cass project, which worked to reimagine the downtown corridor of Cassopolis. Each session with MSU saw between 100 and 200 attendees, who provided ideas such as adding green spaces, a beach and a coffee shop. 

Now, two years after the Imagine Cass project concluded, Village Manager Emilie Sarratore said she has seen Imagine Cass create a ripple effect in the community. She said it had brought life to previously lifeless public spaces, broke down resistance to change and restored faith in community members, improved quality of life by officering outdoor spaces, generated interest in potential investors, rebranded Cassopolis as a place of creativity, growth and prosperity, and fostered a community sense of pride.

“This past year, the village was truly united for the first time in decades throughout the Imagine Cass initiative under the core principles of community vision, cost-effectiveness, collaboration and citizen-led change,” Sarratore said. “The implementation of these projects will have a significant impact in the village.”

The village of Cassopolis wasted little time before working to make the downtown it imagined with MSU a reality. In 2019, the village collected $4,382,616 in grants for projects related to the MSU partnership. The first visible project completed was a new mural and the rehabilitation of the alleyway behind the Cassopolis Veterans of Foreign Wars building. More changes will be coming throughout 2020 with construction set to either begin or complete several projects, including a Parkshore Drive project, a North O’Keefe Street reconstruction project, a boardwalk connecting Lakeshore Drive to downtown, a new municipal complex on Disbrow Street, and a streetscape project that will calm traffic, add bike lanes, replace water mains and sewer lines, add outdoor seating, add lighting, and repave roads and sidewalks.

Also set to begin construction this year is a new beach, pier and promenade on Disbrow behind The Twirl. This project is the one Sarratore is most excited for.

“By late spring, early summer, we will have construction going on all over the community,” she said. “We have some really exciting, fun stuff we have been working on. It is exciting to see some of it coming together.”

Creating a new vision for Edwardsburg

Throughout the Imagine Cass project, several Edwardsburg residents attended input sessions and followed its progress. The sessions lit a fire within those people, who knew they needed to find a way to bring MSU’s team to Edwardsburg.

“We knew this was too good of a deal to pass up,” Marchetti said.

“If Cassopolis can do it, we can,” added Roy Smothermon, director of the Edwardsburg Chamber of Commerce. “I fell in love with Edwardsburg years ago, and I want to see those good things happen here.”

Once it was decided to bring MSU’s team to the village, Marchetti said things moved quickly and successfully, with the project — which garnered overwhelming community support — concluding in September 2019. Despite the challenge posed by Edwardsburg’s lack of a traditional downtown strip, MSU offered several recommendations such as adding a boardwalk, redesigning the vacant Lunker’s building, making Edwardsburg more walkable by adding sidewalks and greenspaces on major roads, and making the downtown more visually pleasing through landscaping and building design.

Already, Edwardsburg and Ontwa Township officials are seeking grants and forming committees to bring their new vision to life. In January, the village received its first grant, a $25,000 matching grant from America in Bloom to add landscaping to a 1,700-foot stretch of railroad tracks on M-62 from US-12 to Elkhart Road. The village has also taken steps to apply for a Michigan Department of Transportation Safe Routes to School Grant, which, if awarded, would offer Edwardsburg up to $200,000 to create safe walking and biking paths for children to use to get to school.

The village is also working on organizing community events such as an art show as part of its first phase of implementing the changes outlined during the MSU project.

“[The Edwardsburg Vision Project] was a jumping-off point for us,” Marchetti said. “We think we will be able to attract some restaurants and retail, some commercial business. … We think we will be able to make the village very attractive and make these changes.”

Making the future a reality

With the futures of Cassopolis and Edwardsburg taking shape, both Marchetti and Sarratore said the visioning process with MSU was a vital step toward change.

“We were already on the path to change, but this really gave us the shot in the arm that we needed and gave us some really great exposure,” Sarratore said. “I think anytime you can work with the younger generation, and this was a student-based project, they can give you some ideas that you maybe didn’t think about. They gave us little pieces of things that helped us form a full picture.”

Though the excitement and energy generated by the visioning sessions are still running hot through Cass County, it could take years or even decades to see some of the proposed changes take shape. Despite this, community leaders said they do not plan to lose sight of the vision, saying that they plan to keep the priorities residents laid out during the process and to see the idea through to make Cassopolis and Edwardsburg thriving examples of what small, rural towns can achieve.

“I’ve lived lots of places, and Edwardsburg has been where we felt the most at home and the most comfortable,” Marchetti said. “This is a wonderful place to live, and we want to see more people move here and see how wonderful it is and the potential here.”

“No one will invest in us unless we invest in ourselves,” Sarratore added. “It is time for us to invest in ourselves.”

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