Joe Borgstrom, principal at Place + Main Advisors LLC Joe Borgstrom, principal at Place + Main Advisors LLC Courtesy photo

Placemaking expert highlights pandemic policies’ ‘silver lining’ for downtowns

BY Sunday, January 30, 2022 06:07pm

A Q&A with Joe Borgstrom, principal at Place + Main Advisors LLC


Last month, Joe Borgstrom became the first person in Michigan to receive a certification in leadership and placemaking from the International Downtown Association, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that assists with urban place management. Borgstrom co-founded Place + Main Advisors LLC with his wife, Kirsten Borgstrom, where they specialize in providing services and training in downtown and traditional commercial district revitalization. Borgstrom was previously the director of downtown and community services at the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, and a founding member of MSHDA’s community assistance team. He recently spoke with MiBiz about the placemaking certification and how the COVID-19 pandemic forced rapid change for cities.

Why did you seek certification in leadership and placemaking through the International Downtown Association?

At its core, placemaking is creating communities that people want to be a part of. There is a direct economic development element to that as we look at how communities have evolved. 

In the placemaking field, there hasn’t been a certification up until now — this was created by the International Downtown Association just last year. There are literally thousands of organizations across the country that do work in placemaking and a lot of different groups doing it that claim to be experts. I’m excited about the certification and hopeful that this will be something people will catch on to and show folks we know what we’re talking about. 

How have downtowns changed since the pandemic?

I once heard the phrase used that the silver lining of the pandemic is that it forced 12 years of change into a few months. There were communities doing whatever they could do to help small businesses and restaurants by allowing things like outdoor dining, which we’ve always been a proponent of prior to the pandemic. This made people realize the economic benefit of giving options to do things outside year-round. 

It has been about taking small ideas and making them bigger and scaling them. In East Lansing, they shut down one of the major streets in the summer and created outdoor dining in the middle of the street. This stuff exists in Europe and larger cities, but hasn’t existed on this scale in this context before. 

How do you see the remote working trend affecting placemaking and downtowns?

Everyone thought (remote working) was temporary at first, but big tech companies have said, ‘Look, we’re not coming back.’ There is a pretty strong concurrence now that about 25 percent of office spaces aren’t going to be used anymore. 

Some corporations will look at reconfiguring their spaces and converting offices into residential — that will be a larger bite of the apple. There will have to be a big conversation with downtown property owners if offices reduce their footprints on what they do with that space. 

You work with municipalities across the country: Are there things that make Grand Rapids or West Michigan’s downtowns different from other cities where you work?

(Remote work) allows Michigan to compete for talent that was forced to be in the Bay Area. Grand Rapids and West Michigan are in a really good position to compete for that talent that grew up here and went out west because they felt like they had to for their career. 

A constant part of this will be making sure people have places to live as well as creating spaces for entrepreneurs to be able to test out markets. We have so many big retail spaces. If someone who has an Etsy shop wants to move into a storefront and take advantage of an event like ArtPrize, you want to be able to test out that space and see if it makes sense and then move into something bigger. We need more 500-square-foot spaces for local mom and pop shops to see if there is opportunity for them to move to a larger space. 

What other trends do you think we’ll see in placemaking practices in downtowns this year?

What we’re going to see is those temporary things that happened at the beginning of the pandemic becoming permanent. Outdoor seating and entertainment districts will start to be more permanent aspects of downtowns. 

Now that American Rescue Plan Act funds are more flexible, you will see bigger, more expensive investments in infrastructure and projects. We’ve been contacted by municipalities that say, ‘What can we do, we have a deadline to spend this money.’ The time crunch is essential because without it a lot of things don’t make a priority list. 

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