If you love a place, and you show you love it by taking care of it and creating beauty in it, then other people will want to love it too.
— Jim Boyd, Executive Director, Cook County Chamber of Commerce

That's the philosophy behind the Great Place Project, an effort based in northern Minnesota to sponsor small-scale placemaking projects that build stronger towns. The program's website describes its goal to create "high impact, low cost great places" by funding projects that "create small nooks of beauty in the built environment." It explains:

A great place is inviting, beautiful, and catches the eye. It reflects the unique character and identity of the community. And a great place encourages people to slow down and spend time there. Placemaking comes in many varieties, from public art to seating – new ideas and innovation are encouraged! 

The Great Place Project is the result of a partnership between the Cook County Chamber of Commerce and a local organization called Moving Matters that focuses on creating safe neighborhoods for people on bikes and walking. Local business owners, nonprofits and residents apply for grants of up to just $1,000 to build art pieces, outdoor play spaces and more. Below are photos of some of the Great Place Project grant recipients, with their projects.

Last year's Great Place Projects included:

  • "A joint project with Grand Marais Art Colony, Voyageur Brewing, Cook County Higher Ed, Betsy Bowen Gallery and Studios, and First Congregational Church for a colorful wayfinding sign to be erected in front of the brewery on Highway 61." Total cost: $1,250.
  • "Transformation of a gravel parking lot into a retail store, with a deck, plants, and benches." Total cost: $750.
  • "Installation of outdoor ping pong table on grassy area in front of Grand Marais Library for free use by public." Total cost: $500
  • "Paint-by-number murals to be created by public during Arts Festival (July 9-10), then installed on north wall of Birchbark Books and Gifts." Total cost: $1,250.
  • "Outdoor play space for children ages birth-5 in front of YMCA building." Total cost: $1,000

This year's award recipients were also just announced. The program's total funding for 2017 year was just $10,000 and, while the program organizers would love a little more funding so they can sponsor more projects, they're still able to support 13 different projects this year.

When we think about the financial scale at which even the smallest towns tend to operate, $10,000 sounds like pocket change. But in Cook County, MN, a group of strong citizens is making that money go a very long way.

Check out this video to see more of the projects in action:

This unique initiative is not prescriptive or limited to certain types of businesses or organizations. It's about giving people a little nudge and a little money to do the things they've been wanting to do for a while, then letting them run with it.

The Great Place Project shares many similarities with an early Strong Towns initiative: Neighborhoods First. Neighborhoods First was: 

A low risk, high return strategy for a better Brainerd [and] an example of how a community can grow stronger by making small, incremental investments over time. By observing how neighbors live their lives, by asking them where their daily struggles are, by getting out on the street and discovering what is actually going on, any local government can discern what their community’s pressing needs are. These projects are the high return investments and they are all around us.

At Strong Towns, we believe every Strong Citizen has the potential to help create a more financially strong future. Small-scale projects like Great Place and Neighborhoods First are one of the best ways to do that, and they're something that all of us could do in our towns if we were committed to making it happen.

What would you do in your neighborhood with $500 or $1000? Why aren't you out there doing it?


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