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Case Study: How East Lansing Increased Public Trust by Using Online Input to Give an Old Building New Life


by Marlena Medford, Director of Government Outreach and Communications, Peak Democracy

After a treasured community center was discovered to be failing financially, East Lansing City Council found itself between a rock and a hard place. This is the story of how city staff turned the tides from dilemma to solution by using online outreach to acknowledge the community’s desires and gain buy-in. 

It all began with a tough decision.

The City of East Lansing is home to Michigan State University, which greatly shaped how the community developed during the early 1900s. As the university expanded, East Lansing began to boom. It was during this time the Bailey Community Center was built, and nearly a century later, the building is still standing.

Despite renovations throughout the decades, city staff recently determined the Bailey Community Center would need a nearly $500,000 overhaul to remain open. In addition, the child care program being offered there was running an annual budget deficit of about $100,000.

In light of these facts, East Lansing City Council was faced with a tough decision: how to handle a historic facility treasured by many, yet saddled with significant financial challenges. After much, and often emotional, dialogue and deliberation, Council ultimately voted to close Bailey Community Center and end the child care program.

The question of what to do with the historic building still remained. Before considering any options, Council wanted to hear from the community. This marked the start of a major public outreach effort inviting residents to share ideas about what they’d like see next.

“People can get pretty creative, if we provide that opportunity.”

City staff asked the community for ideas, and that’s precisely what they got—dozens of them.

Residents were first invited to share their input on e-Town Hall, an online forum offered through Open Town Hall by a non-partisan third party that works to broaden civic engagement and build trust in government.

Nearly 50 statements were posted on e-Town Hall over a two-month period, resulting in suggestions that ranged from creating a film studio to an ice skating rink to an incubator space for startups. 

“It reinforced the idea that people can get pretty creative, if we provide that opportunity,” said Planning, Building and Development Director Tim Dempsey. “In order for people to be creative, they need to have a certain comfort level. That can be difficult if someone feels intimidated to speak during a public meeting. Our online outreach was a way to provide that comfort level for creativity.”

What’s more, the online forum helped city staff hear from new voices in the community. More than half of the statements came from people who were participating for the first time.

“This really allowed us to broaden our reach and level of feedback,” Dempsey said.

The online input also revealed another key trend. In cities across the nation, land use projects typically draw opposition, especially during public meetings because often those with supportive or neutral opinions won’t bother to show up. However, by using online outreach, East Lansing city staff was able to tap into a segment of the community that’s typically missing from these conversations about land use.

“This was a project where staff was quite surprised by the level of support,” Dempsey said. That level of support is truly remarkable considering the project was rooted in topic that had sparked emotion in the community. “It really did an about-face, so to speak.”

City staff reviewed all the online input and ranked ideas by level of popularity. This set the framework for a series of workshops, called input sessions.

“We allowed that online feedback to guide our input sessions,” Dempsey said, adding that many of the same ideas surfaced during those face-to-face conversations. “There was a pretty strong alignment to what we saw online. It really validated what we were doing.”

A new player joins from the sidelines.

Soon after the outreach came to a close, city staff was approached by Capital Area Housing Partnership (CAHP), a nonprofit interested in repurposing the Bailey Community Center and then leasing it under a long-term agreement. It was clear that CAHP staff had been closely monitoring to all that public input, and taking notes.

In June CAHP presented its proposal to City Council, and many of the community’s top desires were clearly reflected in the plan. The proposal includes senior housing, a daycare, office and commercial space, and a fitness center—all of which are ideas that surfaced during the public outreach.

Residents were overwhelmingly pleased that their voices had been heard. Sally Silver, who lives near the Bailey Community Center, summed it up in her comments to City Council, which were quoted in a Lansing State Journal article about the project:

“This proposal fits well with the ideas and preferences put forth at the facilitated sessions and the e-Town Hall that represent the wishes of the entire community,” she said.

Based on the successful public outreach effort, Council voted to pursue a predevelopment agreement with CAHP. City staff is now working with CAHP to apply for state funding for the project and to further refine the proposal. If CAHP secures its funding this fall, it’s anticipated that construction could begin as soon as the spring of 2016.

So, what can we learn from this?

Though the project still has a way to go before reaching the finish line, there are some key lessons that can be taken away:

  • When done well, online engagement can be a catalyst for change. Creating the conditions for meaningful community dialogue can spur action. In East Lansing, this was clearly evidenced with a plan that reflected many of the ideas that surfaced during that community dialogue.
  • Acknowledging public input helps build trust. Ultimately, East Lansing residents felt that their voices had been heard and indeed shaped the outcome. It’s important to note that while staff was able to work with many of the community’s ideas, it could not entertain them all because some were not feasible. “Throughout the process we really tried to reinforce the fact that there were budget constraints at play here,” Dempsey explained. Clearly communicating why – or why not – an idea is doable helps the public understand how the decision was made, and assures residents that their input was heard and considered.
  • Public input can be broadened greatly through online engagement. Many residents may be too busy to attend traditional meetings, or simply may prefer to share their thoughts online. An online forum can allow city staff to hear from those new, and often more moderate, voices. What’s more, residents often see that broader reach as a big plus because they know decisions are being made with a more representative picture of the community. As one East Lansing e-Town Hall user explained: “It is time for more voices to be heard in this community instead of the usual few who show up to city council meetings. The opinions and polling that this tool provides reflect a broader ‘will of the people’--many of whom are busy and can't find the time to come before decision-making bodies in public forums. Way to go with taking this important democratic step forward.”

About Open Town Hall by Peak Democracy

Peak Democracy’s Open Town Hall is a cloud-based online civic engagement platform that augments and diversifies public participation in ways that also enable government leaders to increase public trust in government.  Founded in 2007, Peak Democracy has worked with more than 100 cities in the US, Canada and Australia. The company has launched more than 2,000 forum topics, attracting more than 310,000 people—and it maintains a 91% satisfaction rating based on user-feedback. For more information, please visit peakdemocracy.com, email info@peakdemocracy.com or call 866-535-8894.

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Jurisdictions

Peak Democracy, Inc.; Trinidad, CA

Open Town Hall/Peak Democracy; Berkeley, CA

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