DETROIT - Rodney Stokes, Gov. Rick Snyder's point man on the administration's vibrant cities initiative, knows there's not a lot of spare money to invest in recreation and green space in Michigan cities.
The former leader of the state's Department of Natural Resources, however, sees a growing desire to expand urban trails, reclaim riverfronts for recreational use and offer outdoor activities. He's helped do that in Detroit, and sees potential in Grand Rapids, Lansing, Flint and other urban areas.
"Michigan is a special place. Michigan has special places all over the state," said Stokes, 62, who started his new job as Snyder's special adviser for city placemaking after more than three decades with the DNR. "My goal is to work to bring back special places."
A mountain biker rides a section of the Heartwood Forestland trails in Marquette. Bike trails, waterfronts and other recreation opportunities are being looked at as new engines for the state economy. (Journal file photo)
This month, he's planning meetings in the Grand Rapids area, and will reach out in Lansing, Saginaw and other cities over the next six months to see how existing state grants, private partnerships and other work can help build on efforts to improve Michigan cities. He'll also continue to encourage people to think beyond their communities' borders to make the most of those resources.
Sharon Nunnelee, executive director of West Michigan Trails and Greenways Coalition, welcomed the increased focus on efforts like her organization's work. She said trails not only offer a place for outdoor escape, they connect communities and boost the area economy - from local bike shops, for example, to the tourism industry. She said the idea of regional cooperation is a key.
"You've got to work together. This is one state. It is not the east state. It is not the west state," she said. "You've got to look at what will work for the big picture."
Stokes' focus is part of an emphasis on what Snyder refers to as "placemaking," an idea he highlighted in a March 2011 special message to the Legislature on local government reform. It recognizes that Michigan communities must make strides to be places where workers, entrepreneurs and businesses want to call home as part of a broader effort to strengthen the state's economy.
"Economic development and community development are two sides of the same coin," Snyder said in the message. "A community without place amenities will have a difficult time attracting and retaining talented workers and entrepreneurs, or being attractive to business."
In Detroit, Stokes was an important part of the effort to expand and enhance William G. Milliken State Park & Harbor, located along the Detroit River near downtown, and transform a more than century-old manufacturing site into an adventure and discovery center with rock climbing, archery and other activities.
The center could be ready next year.
He's also been involved in plans by the state to partner with Detroit to restore Belle Isle, the island park in the Detroit River.
That work comes as the governor and the state's Treasury Department take a more aggressive role in trying to fix the finances of cities like Detroit, which this year entered into an agreement with the state aimed at improving its books, and Flint, which last year came under control of a state-appointed emergency financial manager. And it has attracted some skepticism about the state's intentions.
Stokes, however, said people want recreation opportunities in their cities, and really don't care who runs it or who gets credit. On Monday, he's expected to join the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, state and local officials, as well as lawmakers, at Mount Elliott Park in Detroit to celebrate the launch of new construction to help complete some of the riverfront revitalization work.
Matt Cullen, who serves as chief executive officer of Rock Ventures LLC as well as chairman of the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy's board, said he's worked with Stokes as part of the conservancy's efforts and described himself as a "big fan of Rodney's." He said Stokes is passionate about his work, and a "big advocate for sharing the physical grandeur of the state with the urban community."
In Flint, Mayor Dayne Walling said Stokes, in his role with the DNR, has been involved in talks about what can be done to help encourage revitalization along the Flint River and build on ongoing efforts to revitalize Flint's downtown. He said the state's use of emergency financial managers to address troubled city finances has strained - and complicated - cooperative efforts needed to make such plans happen.
"The vibrant cities initiative offers some additional focus and, hopefully, resources," Walling said.