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Esky hopes to make city attractive to developers

ESCANABA — Five of Escanaba’s boards and commissions met Wednesday in a joint meeting to discuss the steps the city would need to take to regain Redevelopment Ready Community Certification status.

The RRC program is a technical assistance program offered through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation that aims to empower communities to adopt best practices, with the ultimate goal of making those communities more attractive to potential developers.

Escanaba’s relationship with the program has been tumultuous. The city was one of the first in the state to achieve full certification status in 2015, but a dispute over whether or not to go against the RRC’s best practices and require public hearings at the planning commission level for projects that were permitted uses by right stalled the recertification process in late 2019 and and early 2020. In addition to the question of public hearings, the pandemic further hindered the city’s ability to meet RRC recertification deadlines.

Rather than drop out of the program completely, the city and MEDC reached a compromise: drop the city back to “engaged” status, a level typically reserved for communities entering the program for the first time who were actively seeking certification but did not yet meet the necessary requirements.

“You remain to this day the only city in the entire state that has ever made that move, but again, we still think that was the right move at the time, given your priorities there,” Senior RRC Planner Christopher Germain told the group of boards present Wednesday.

While the city council and planning commission ultimately reached a compromise on the issue of public hearings in a way that complied with the RRC’s best practices, the pandemic had an affect on the RRC program itself.

“We cut a lot of our communities a lot of slack last year, as I think a lot of state programs did with everything going on with COVID, but behind the scenes we were working on a pretty significant revamp to the RRC process,” said Germain.

In February of this year, MEDC launched “RRC 2.0,” which streamlined the process for certification and established two levels of participation in the program: RRC Essentials and RRC Certified.

In practice, the Essentials levels of the program is a slimmed down RRC certification. Communities that reach Essentials status have all the key documents and practices in place to provide a predictable development experience and meet the responsibilities for planning and zoning laid out by state law.

To reach Certified status, communities have to adopt all of the RRC’s best practices and proactively seek out community development opportunities. This includes taking steps like developing a marketing plan and taking certain actions to create “Redevelopment Ready Sites” that are primed for development.

Both levels of the program come with a variety of benefits provided by the state, however there are more benefits — such as access to the Redevelopment Services Team and additional discounts and training — reserved for Certified communities.

Earlier this year, the city decided to pursue Certified status, and has been working to check off the requirements outlined by the program. A workgroup composed of members from multiple boards was established help bring about the changes needed in the city.

Some in attendance Wednesday wondered why the city council had opted to dive straight into the Certified path rather than working through the Essentials level and then moving towards full certification. However, Germain noted if the city achieved Essentials status first, that level of recognition and participation in the program would be granted as the city moved forward towards full certification.

“We’re far more interested in the city’s long term (goal). Are you planning to go all the way? If you keep on the Certified path and accidentally complete RRC Essentials, our intention is to give you that designation,” he said.

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