We’re excited to kick off a new series featuring profiles of our members. Not only are our members an essential part of supporting what we do here at Strong Towns, but they are doing incredible things in their communities. this is a chance to highlight them and their excellent work!
When Mike Gingerich sent our President, Chuck Marohn, the following message, I knew I had to talk to him.
I want to reiterate to you and the staff at Strong Towns how interesting and important your work is to me. Strong Towns has provided me with a great education and content to inform people I deal with on a day to day basis. Just two weeks ago, I was able to advocate for less parking at a Meijer storage which will be replacing a Kmart. I have also been advocating for converting parking into buildable outlots. Finally, I have been able to talk with reasonable confidence about infill development in our urban core and flexible zoning regulations to attract incremental development. It is fun.
Not only is he doing some tremendous work in his community, but it sounds like he’s having a blast in the process!
Mike grew up in St. Charles, MO and fondly remembers the city’s great downtown. Incidentally, St. Charles has a rather interesting history. In the 1970’s, they bought into the trend of creating a pedestrian mall to stem the tide of businesses moving to the suburban malls. By the 1980’s, they realized they’d made a mistake and went back to a traditional cobblestone design highlighting their downtown’s historic character.
After attending college at the University of Illinois, Mike moved to Kankakee, a small metro area south of Chicago. Mike and his wife Kim made the move the Kankakee to help Olivet Nazarene University start an engineering degree program. He continues to teach courses at the university. He later purchased a small civil engineering firm and has ran that since. You may have heard of Kankakee if you’re a fan of David Letterman. Letterman read an article on his show that called Kankakee the worst place to live in the U.S. So, he sent the city a gazebo. The city turned around and made it into a rocking chair when he retired!
Mike and Kim recently sold their house and moved to Chicago’s South Loop area. He’s still actively involved, however, in Kankakee and the surrounding area.
Discovering Strong Towns
Mike can’t remember exactly how he stumbled onto Strong Towns - a link perhaps. He says he was likely searching for urban renewal. It’s a subject he is very interested in as a result of living in Kankakee. The area has a nice urban core, but it has been slowly dismantled and disinvested in. There are plenty of good businesses, but the area as a whole is the victim of years of typical migration of business to strip centers on the edge of town. The metro has also experienced fragility due to a number of large employers leaving the area in the 1980’s.
Growing up in St. Charles, MO with its vibrant downtown helped him appreciate the importance of a strong core with a good urban fabric. He feels that background helped him quickly understand the benefits of the Strong Towns approach.
Recently, it came to Mike’s attention that a Kmart in Bradley, a neighboring city in the Kankakee metro, was going to close and be purchased by Meijer, another chain store. Meijer approached the village and noted that their building footprint was larger than Kmart, so they were going to propose less parking than the existing regulations called for. This request came from the developer and so far there has not been much pushback, although final plans have yet to be submitted.
This redevelopment process has opened some eyes to the notion that minimum parking standards may be overscaled. While it hasn’t led to a policy change such as abolishing or reducing minimum parking standards; the city showed an openness to being adaptable by allowing hte developer to provide a study showing their projections for less parking demand.
Infill development and flexible zoning regulations
Mike has been a strong local proponent for more infill development in the urban core and flexible zoning regulations to attract incremental development. He has been working hard to promote the concept of a corridor to connect communities in the metro. Additionally, he’s working to convince leaders to allow for flexible zoning to let people bring live-work uses into the corridors. Providing these entrepreneurs the flexibility they need to set up shop in the urban core is essential for the area’s vitality. Currently, entrepreneurs are migrating to surrounding rural areas where regulation is more lax.
Mike said this work is currently in discussion phase. The conversation has been good and much needed. “We need to do something, not much is going on right now.” Information from Strong Towns and other sources has been helpful for Mike as he navigates these important conversations.
Developing parking lots
The Kankakee metro area has a fair amount of low density suburban development and the large surface parking lots that come with it. Mike has been spurring conversations about turning parking areas into outlots so they don’t have to devleop more land for strip malls and other businesses. “We could go for quite a while just infilling parking lots.”
He has been putting together quick pro-bono sketches for his realtor and developer friends; hoping to show them the potential for developing outlots. While he finds suburban retrofitting to be interesting, he’s more passionate about downtown at this point.
The Village of Bradley is working on a Broadway redevelopment project. Mike has talked with them about the concept of small bets and incremental steps.For example, he is suggesting striping a bike lane. He has discouraged them from the original plan of doing a major multi-million dollar overhaul. Small bets!
He has also had conversations with leaders about taking a similar approach on nearby Schuyler Ave. Making these streets more bikeable not only benefits bicyclists, but it is part of a larger vision Mike has of creating a multi-modal corridor connecting key assets in the area. The corridor is bookended by Olivet Nazarene University on one end and Kankakee Community College on the other. They already have important pieces in place. “We are lucky to have a good and effective mass transit system in our area.” Mike, noted the transit manager is very good about complimenting other modes and encouraging multi-modal
What struck me during our conversation was the positive, pragmatic and constructive approach Mike takes. It’s clear that he has built a lot of trust and respect in the community.
Working as an individual, Mike finds it most effective to start by seeking out high ranking stakeholders (e.g. mayor, city administrator, college president) and working from there. He thinks it is important not to catch leadership off guard when promoting ideas in their community.
Focusing on the economic arguments and the numbers is crucial to his approach. The sluggish local economy has made leaders more receptive to different ways of thinking. “It’s easy for me to take a positive stand and talk about the economics since the urban core is economically stagnant.”
Having millennial-aged kids has informed Mike’s perspective as well by exposing him to the desire for a walkable lifestyle. He gets that it’s a priority for many, especially younger people.
Mike is having a lot of fun and making good progress. But he doesn’t pretend it’s a cakewalk. “The difficult part is getting from concept to action.” And at the end of the day, like many of us, that’s what he’s aiming for. Tangible changes to make the community a better place for people to live fulfilling lives.