By Dale Hemmila
For decades, Michigan farmers, educators, and residents have been able to count on the Michigan State University Extension Service for advice and guidance related to everything from agriculture and business development, to lawn and garden information.
Over the past several years, a relatively new feature has been made available to communities throughout the state to assist with economic development and tourism. Much of that assistance begins in an office in Port Huron occupied by Andy Northrop, MSU Extension Educator.
While Northrop has some responsibilities for programs throughout the entire state, he has been focused most recently on the Blue Water Area and Michigan’s Thumb. A member of MSU’s sustainable community faculty for the past six years, Northrop has been developing a new path for the Extension Service.
“Prior to my being hired, the Extension Service didn’t have any tourism development,” Northrop said recently while discussing some of the new initiatives. “I took programs that didn’t exist and built them. There are tremendous opportunities in this part of Michigan and the state itself.”
Northrop certainly has the background to build programs and visualize opportunities. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from MSU, with an emphasis on economic development, and a master’s degree in international development from the School for International Training in Vermont. He also has years of hands-on experience in international tourism and economic development, much of it in Southeast Asia. He worked most recently in South Korea as an advisor to the Ministry of Knowledge Economy, while also serving on the faculty of Korea’s SolBridge International School of Business.
His desire to return to his Michigan roots—he is a native of Northville—led to his current position with the MSU Extension Service.
“A lot of what I do is work with communities to show them that tourism can be an economic driver,” he explained. “Internationally, developing countries have embraced tourism.”
While he maintains statewide responsibilities for programs, his primary focus has been the five counties that make up Michigan’s Thumb: Huron, Tuscola, Sanilac, Lapeer and St. Clair.
Noting that “Michigan bleeds talent,” Northrop said one goal is to try to retain as many Michigan-grown and educated residents in the state as possible.
“Urban areas are drawing people after college,” he said. “We’ve let that happen for decades.”
Part of the MSU strategy to turn that around is to help Michigan communities become places where people want to live, work and play.
Among the processes he has developed and leads to assist in this area is a program called First Impressions.
First Impressions involves a five-person team that visits a community, “invited but unannounced.” The team then spends eight hours focused on the experience of a tourist.
“We evaluate communities and provide assessments as outside visitors,” he said.
Among the goals of the First Impressions program is for the community to develop a list of community improvement action items based on the “outside eyes insight,” and integrate those items into the community’s future plans, with an eye toward improving the quality of life for residents and visitors.
To be eligible for a First Impressions Team (FIT) visit, communities must apply for consideration and develop a leadership team that will be able to take a lead role in enacting the improvements needed following the reported results of the FIT visit.
The program has seen success and changes in many of the cities visited.
In 2017, the Thumb cities involved in the FIT process included Elkton, Imlay City, Marlette and Sebewaing.
Following the FIT assessment, cities receive $2,000 in State of Michigan grant money to help implement their action items.
Northrop said the program has helped generate interesting and sometimes surprising projects
“Farmers markets, Downtown Development Districts re-engaged, bike trails, grant money leveraged, websites improved, walking trails, murals, we’re seeing a variety of stuff,” he said.
The program has continued in 2018 with nearby Marine City and Cass City among communities that have seen FIT visits this year.
Northrop cites the Thumb area from St. Clair County north to Huron County as ripe for more economic opportunity.
“This is the best kept hidden secret in Michigan,” he said. “MSU is trying to change that.”
Among the state’s biggest asset is its main natural resource.
“One thing Michigan has going for it is all this water,” he explained. “There is no reason to assume Michigan couldn’t become the epicenter of the United States because of all this water.”
Part of his strategy in that regard is getting the communities to realize the asset that they have. In that regard, he said many Thumb cities are already moving in that direction.
Marine City and Lexington are already draws, he said. “Port Austin is getting a name for itself, Harbor Beach has probably the nicest beach. This part of the state is underrated. The natural resource is here and it’s significant for these communities.”
Northrop also likes what he sees in the city where he works.
“Port Huron is a good example of making it a place where people want to visit, then perhaps want to live here,” he said.
Part of the reason for that is the collaboration within communities that is needed for success.
“This area gets it,” he said of Port Huron. “The convention center and Blue Meets Green, they are good examples of collaboration and getting together. You don’t see that in all parts of the state.”
With the MSU Extension Service offering new opportunities for community assistance and development, Northrop has a very optimistic view for Michigan and his chief area of concern—the Thumb—and all it has to offer for future visitors and potential residents.
As for those who are already here enjoying the resources and community assets?
“We are super fortunate to live where we live,” he said.