The East Lansing City Council supported the idea of a return of Albert EL Fresco and other placemaking projects in East Lansing after the City’s Community & Economic Development Administrator Adam Cummins spoke about the City’s Daytime. Nighttime. Anytime. Place Project, which was one of four finalists for the Michigan Municipal League’s Community Excellence Awards at Tuesday’s Council meeting.
The Place Project began in response to the pandemic as a way to support local businesses, increase opportunities for consumers downtown, and provide a safe environment to social distance within the community.
“Economics and public health are directly linked to the environment and the quality and quantity of public spaces, and our spaces lacked that,” Cummins told Council.
During the pandemic, Cummins and his team tried to address that problem by designing a host of projects to bring people downtown safely and sought grants and funding to support the implementation. Some placemaking projects included: the remodeling of the 500-Block Pedestrian Alley to include outdoor seating, the East Lansing Downtown Underground Market in the M.A.C. Garage, the Weekend Warrior Events, and art installations near the Division Street Garage.
Albert EL Fresco was one of the Place Project’s biggest undertakings, and seemingly, one of its most popular ones, too. In August, when the project wrapped up, several ELi readers expressed that they were sad to see the public outdoor space go.
Data collected by Cummins and his team through ongoing community feedback surveys show overwhelming community support for the return of Albert EL Fresco. Over 98% of those surveyed were satisfied or highly satisfied with Albert EL Fresco and likely to visit again. Another 92% would like to see the space extended for a longer period of time, and 94% want to see more spaces like it throughout the year.
“Most communities would die for data like this that shows 98% popularity, these are real measures of success that I think the City should pay attention to,” said Council member Shanna Draheim when Council responded to Cummins’ presentation.
During his presentation, Cummins spoke about the City’s improved social media strategies that led both to significantly more engagement online and to bringing people downtown. Cummins noted that his team intended to gather community members downtown of a variety of ages, and after analyzing the data presented, stated, “looks like we have done that.”
According to Cummins, social media posts made by the City about new businesses opening get approximately 25,000 views. While local and downtown businesses suffered during the pandemic, it now appears there is a shift from businesses struggling to businesses wanting to open and become a part of the new downtown.
“The Place Project was one big experiment, so what have we learned?” asked Cummins as he discussed possible improvements for future placemaking projects, including an earlier opening and later dismantling, increased levels sanitation, public restrooms, WiFi, additional seating and signage, and more multifunctional infrastructure.
Council member Draheim stated that the Place Project was one of four finalists for the Michigan Municipal League’s Community Excellence Awards. “We were robbed,” joked Draheim as she expressed her excitement and gratitude toward Cummins and his project’s success for downtown.
Draheim also called for the possibility of having EL Fresco around while students are in town. As ELi reported in August, both Mayor Jessy Gregg and Deputy Police Chief Steve Gonzalez cited concerns about public safety and the return of students as a reason for dismantling the project. Draheim pointed out that public safety has still be an issue, with or without EL Fresco.
“Excellent. Adam, you and your team have permission to try and fail. This is a huge brand enhancement to East Lansing,” said Council member Ron Bacon. “You’ve earned credibility to ask for more things.”
“This Place Project really filled the void and got people excited to come downtown,” said City Manager George Lahanas. “I think it was the perfect project at the perfect time. I think it also showcases great development. Lots of people to thank for this.”
Lastly, Mayor Jessy Gregg, herself a small business owner downtown, stated, “To me, building a vital downtown district is a chicken and the egg situation. You need businesses to have a vital downtown district, and you need a vital district to have more businesses.”
She praised Cummins and his team and said that she hopes the funding for such a successful project will continue to be secured in the future.
Cummins thanked everyone for acknowledging all the departments, teams, and local sponsors that put effort into this project. He also thanked the City Manager and his manager, because, he said, “they put a lot of trust in us.”