What are visitors’ first impressions of your community?
Four communities in Michigan’s Thumb region will undergo the MSU Extension First Impressions program to assess tourism strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in their community.
In late 2016, Michigan State University Extension’s tourism educators partnered with Prosperity Region 6 to launch opportunities for some of Michigan’s rural Thumb communities interested in having their community assessed through the eyes of first-time visitors. The intention is to have a fresh set of eyes to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and/or threats for planning and development around tourism.
MSU Extension’s tourism program, First Impression: Assessing your community for tourism (FIT), is a statewide program that looks at a community through the eyes of a first-time visitor. The program, modeled from partnering Midwestern and southern land-grant universities was launched in 2016 as a pilot in Sturgis, Mich. and then later delivered again in Standish, Mich.
As part of Governor’s Snyder Prosperity Regions initiatives to create vibrant regional economies through private and public partnerships, FIT was selected in Region 6 to help communities progress with the help of visitors new to their community. Applications were opened between October and December (2016) for rural communities with a population of 10,000 or less and able/willing to form a Community Leadership Team (CLT) that would bear responsibilities during the year-long process, such as organizing meetings with other community leaders and a Community Report Forum (CRF) to share results at the end of the year.
The communities selected were Imlay City (Lapeer County), Marlette (Sanilac County), and the Villages of Sebewaing and Elkton (Huron County). Each community will receive a pre-determined number of visitors during spring/summer from MSU Extension’s Greening Michigan Institute. Each visitor will conduct a pre-visit online, just as if they were planning to visit the area on their own outside of this project. Visitors will spend approximately 24 hours in the selected communities unannounced and assess the community with a FIT visitors’ manual during that time. Results will be aggregated and put into a presentation to be shared toward fall of 2017. A written report of results will also be provided to the CLT, so future planning can be coordinated around suggestions from the FIT program. The results from FIT are merely suggestions and communities have the option of acting upon them.
The majority of communities selected for 2017 FIT program intend to use the results to help shape their master plans, as indicated in their applications. All four communities will receive $2,000, as well from Prosperity Region 6 to help move forward in their next steps.
Understanding how the community is viewed by visitors can increase awareness and opportunities to leverage assets previously overlooked or neglected when planning for tourism. After all, planning maximizes the advantages and minimizes the disadvantages of developing rural tourism. The results of FIT in a community can motivate action from local leadership, strengthen current community development initiatives, encourage self‐evaluation, build new networks, foster engagement with youth or minority residents, and/or spawn regional collaboration.