Jeff’s Summer Road Trip 2019: Placemaking in District 1


On the sixteenth stop of his road trip to visit all Extension districts in a single summer, director Jeff Dwyer meets Bob LaFave, L’Anse village manager and partner in community place-making initiatives.

January 20, 2020

Jeff Dwyer: When many people hear the name MSU Extension, they might think we're located on Michigan State University's campus in East Lansing. What they might not know is that we have people living and working in communities across the state in all 83 Michigan counties. We are truly a community based organization and we work closely to partner with community members to provide the resources they need to improve their lives. We also rely on volunteers who make up our advisory councils to tell us what their community priorities are and how we can help.

Today I'm in L'Anse, a village of about 2000 people in Michigan's beautiful upper peninsula and I'm with one of our longtime volunteers and partners, Bob LaFave, L'Anse village manager. I'm Jeff Dwyer, director of Michigan State University Extension. And this is Partnerships and Peninsulas.

Introduction: This is Partnerships and Peninsulas and just like the state of Michigan, this podcast is filled with stories of amazing people who are doing wonderful work from Marquette to Monroe. Sit back and discover everything you didn't know about Michigan State University Extension. Here's your host, Jeff Dwyer.

Jeff Dwyer: Bob, thank you for joining me today.

Bob LaFave: Thanks for having me.

Jeff Dwyer: It truly is a beautiful morning here in L'Anse. We're looking out at the bay as we talk here through the window of the L'Anse city offices here. And we'd like to talk a little bit, Bob, you have worked with us in a variety of different ways over the years. Let's just start by talking about how you've worked with us, either directly as a volunteer or on our various advisory councils.

Bob LaFave: Certainly, well, when I first got here to the village at that time, Mike Jensen was a local county director here and I worked very closely with him on the fire department on some plans for wildfire prevention and I got involved in other aspects working with Extension. It's a tool box really for local communities to help you get resources with a variety of different projects, whether that's been putting our entire planning commission through the Citizen Planner Program, working with Extension folks to work on placemaking and other activities in our community to help enhance it and make it a better place to live or helping to support 4-H activities in our community to help our local youth. Extension is really out there and in our community and it's in yours as well.

Jeff Dwyer: Well thank you for that testimony about what we do in Extension. We have the privilege of having you on our advisory council here in Baraga, Houghton and Keweenaw County areas. What do you do on that council and what do you get from being a part of that council?

Bob LaFave: Well, it's another way of finding out exactly what's going on around us. The Extension folks are working in a variety of different projects, not just here in Baraga County but in other counties as well. And it provides opportunities for collaboration between our communities and also a way for us to bring to Extension maybe some of the issues and problems we have in our own community, or perhaps Extension will have a resource that can be made available to us to help address that.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, let's talk about that a little more. So as we do in all counties, we have 4-H here and we have a new tourism person here, but just prior to this podcast you and I were talking and you've utilized a lot of the other resources we have in Extension. You mentioned Citizen Planner for example a moment ago. What are some of the other areas where you've been able to access Extension resources that maybe don't live here right in this county, but that you know you have access to and can bring in experts to help with?

Bob LaFave: Well, certainly. There may be somebody who stops by our offices who's looking at starting up a local business. They've got an idea for a product. We can plug them into the folks at Extension and get access to the product center or other resources that can help that person maybe help bring a product to market. It may be somebody who lives outside the community and maybe that they've got an issue with a cow or something like that too, and we could get them access to an expert in that field as well. So certainly resources that Baraga County by itself could never hope to have access to on its own. But through a great organization like Extension, we can bring resources that aren't just here in the Upper Peninsula but also on campus and around the rest of the state to Barry here to help us solve our problems and help move our community forward.

Jeff Dwyer: I think one of the other things that you and I, I think, agreed on when we were talking earlier is that when we identify positions, like the recent tourism position that we filled here in Baraga County, that you've been a big part of helping to make happen. When we go out and recruit for people together, we can often find individuals interested in moving to a small community that individually we might not have been successful in attracting. So that's a positive as well.

Bob LaFave: Absolutely. We all are dealing with limited resources. The name brand of MSU Extension and the resources that they have available and then the resources that we're able to bring in available, we can help bring a special person to our community that can help us work on specific issues that the community's identified.

Jeff Dwyer: So Bob, in addition to serving on the local advisory council, you have also served on our state advisory council. How was that experience a little different sort of at the state level versus the more localized regional level?

Bob LaFave: Well, for me it was really eye opening because you know that Extension does a lot in a lot of places, but you got to learn an awful lot about the resources that the university has throughout the state and also the AgBioResearch facilities and what they're doing. And that's actually pretty important and amazing partnerships they have with local industry and trying to help develop industries that people in the state think probably developed indigenously all on their own, without the help of the research that's done at Michigan State to help grow those industries and make them healthier. It was also great too because I, in part of my position, I need to have relationships with legislators and this is another way for me to help establish more of those relationships. Extension's got a great story to tell, so that's always a good time and an easy thing to do to stop in and talk to legislature about the importance of what Extension does in our communities.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, we of course are very proud of what our Extension staff does all across the state and as you pointed out in so many different areas, but just want to take this opportunity to say thank you to you for your involvement with us over these years, because there's no way we could serve the number of people that we do on a literally on a daily basis without people like you partnering with us and working closely with us. And as you know, we have nearly 20,000 volunteers that help us do what we do. And you're among those in a variety of ways. And I understand that when we have our next state council meeting here in the UP next month, we're going to have the opportunity to hear from you and about what your experience was as a state council member.

Bob LaFave: Absolutely. I'm really looking forward to it. It's another way to show all the board members exactly how Extension is making impacts, even in rural small parts of the state, like our community here in L'Anse.

Jeff Dwyer: So one of the areas, and you referred to it briefly a couple of moments ago, that we've had a chance to partner with you are on some placemaking initiatives here in the village of L'Anse. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? As I drove in, I saw a mural underway and I know that you have others. Could you tell me a little more about that placemaking work and particularly some of the interaction you've had with Brad Neumann and how that has helped the village?

Bob LaFave: Well, Brad is a real gem of a person to be able to work with, a great resource. He put together a great program where we were able to go and I was able to take our chamber director and a few other key stakeholders in the community and actually go through the process of working through some of these things. And we were able to come up with kind of three tactical actionable placemaking projects.

One of them is a small pocket park that we built across the street from a local credit union and near a bank downtown. And it was an ocean of asphalt as far as the parking lot went and kind of broke that up and created a nice space for people in the community to gather.

And the other is a mural project. We didn't have any downtown at that time. It might be a neat way to take a space that otherwise was just a blank wall and not all that important to anybody and turn it into something that was special to community members.

And then also getting some signage up for some local waterfalls that we had. And these were all things that were not particularly super expensive to do, but it was also a great way of getting input and also buy in from other members of the community to work on these types of projects. And so one of the great things about the mural project that we did, the pilot project is it's a started kind of a little mural boom downtown here. We've got several different projects that have, the DDA is funded but also even some private businesses, to take otherwise unimpressive, I hate saying it that way, unimpressive wall, gray wall and turning it into something that's colorful and that is connected to our community.

Jeff Dwyer: That's a fantastic example of how we have and can work together. And I will say just driving into town this morning, it's very noticeable the impact of those things. I like your reference to the fact to realizing that while it clearly took a lot of people getting together and Brad's facilitation to work on those three areas, but it doesn't often cost a lot of money.

Bob LaFave: No.

Jeff Dwyer: And I think that's important for people that you don't always have to wait to get that 50 or 100 or $250,000 grant, which might happen or it might not happen and if it does happen it might be months or years down the road. Sometimes it helps just to get to work together. And I think that's one of the things that we appreciate in working with you here in L'Anse, but other examples around the state is sometimes we can just get in a room and figure it out and start on a path. And that's really terrific.

You've worked with us in so many different ways, Bob, and you've been the manager here in L'Anse for over a decade working with us closely. Let's talk about the future for a moment. We are going through a process in MSU Extension right now where we're doing some visioning around what should the Extension of the 2020s look like, really not looking in small bite sized chunks of a year or two. But what should we be thinking about a decade or more from now and then what are the steps along the way? What are some of the things you worry about in your job, in your role as a community member that you think MSU Extension either might be able to help with in our current form or might need to be thinking about in terms of positioning ourselves to be a good partner in the future?

Bob LaFave: Well, I can say that the village certainly, if you go back 20 years, we used to have, I bet you probably about twice as many people working here as we do today and that's one of the things that makes Extension so much more important because it gives us more organizational capacity to try to get out there and deal with things, whether that's through trainings, being at Extension events. You can actually find other groups or people that you can partner with as well that can help continue success and continue to help move the community forward. The resources that Extension has, as I was kind of getting at earlier, by partnering with Extension, we're able to do more than we would be by ourselves. And I think that that's a key part, especially for rural communities in Michigan, having access to those resources to helping us continue to move forward and to continue to be great places to live.

Jeff Dwyer: Well, Bob, I want to thank you for giving all of your time and energy to serve on our various advisory councils and for all of the ways that you've worked with us over the years. And also for joining me here today on Partnerships and Peninsula.

Bob LaFave: Well, thanks for having me and go green.

Jeff Dwyer: Go white. This is Partnerships and Peninsulas. My name is Jeff Dwyer and I have the privilege of being the Director of Michigan State University Extension.