LAINGSBURG — City officials now have a better understanding of how people view their community from the outside, thanks to Michigan State University Extension’s First Impressions Tourism Assessment (FIT) program.

The purpose of FIT is to help communities learn about their strengths and weaknesses through the eyes of first time visitors, and during the months of May and June, five unannounced tourists spent time in the city of Laingsburg to document their perspectives.

“This is not how to become a tourist town, this program, we went into this a few years ago thinking that that’s what this program would be but we were wrong,” Andy Northrop, of MSU Extension, said during the presentation Monday. “We’ve come to realize that it’s simply just to provide you with information as to what tourists think of your town, because every community gets visitors, every single one. The difference between each visitor is that some are here simply for church, some are here just to get gas, some are here to visit your parks and some are here to just eat at a restaurant and be on their way. That’s the point of this program, to highlight what a variety of visitors might think about your community.”

The assessment was funded by Prosperity Region 6, a seven-county partnership that includes Shiawassee, Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Tuscola and Huron counties. For taking part in the program, Laingsburg’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) was awarded $2,000.

Monday, more than 90 area residents packed into Laingsburg American Legion Post 248 as MSU Extension hosted a forum to present the results.

Between May 13 and June 23, five assessors visited Laingsburg, eating at restaurants, visiting parks and driving in and around town, among other things, to gain a sense of what the city has to offer.

Upon leaving, each assessor had 48 hours to document his or her findings in a 38-page written assessment.

Assessors noted strengths of the city include its directional signage, website, and parks and natural scenery.

In terms of challenges facing the destination, assessors noted a lack of outdoor seating at restaurants downtown, a number of empty buildings, as well as a poor variety of shopping options.

Northrop, who was one of the five assessors to visit Laingsburg, said he believed the number of large garage doors downtown was a weakness that could become a strength.

“The idea that we came up with during our debrief was, ‘What if these guys did like a garage door days festival and opened up all those doors and had things behind there, had artist shows behind there or perhaps maker spaces behind there?’ This would be a way to highlight local artwork, food, things like that,” Northrop said.

Diane Wilson, who also evaluated Laingsburg, runs the Michigan ArtShare program at MSU, which promotes ways to keep artists working in Michigan. She noted Laingsburg has ample opportunity to capitalize on the talent of its local artists.

“I would shoot right for that art stuff,” Wilson said. “I work really closely with Owosso and Morrice, and some other towns around the state…When you see downtowns with the garage doors all facing outward all I can think about is I just want to bring in a team of muralists and I want to bring in some art teachers…You have a ton of artists in the Laingsburg area who live here and they go to Owosso and Lansing because I work with them all of the time.”

Other recommendations outlined in the assessment included encouraging specialty shops downtown, such as a gym or coffee shop, increasing zoning for short-term rentals, increasing a social media presence and launching outdoor recreation and tourism activities to attract the MSU student and faculty population.

City Clerk/Treasurer Paula Willoughby, who led the charge to apply for the FIT assessment, said she believes the city is headed in the right direction.

“I just feel extremely validated,” Willoughby said, “I feel like everything we’ve been working on, they talked about the signage and the roads and the website, I mean, all of those things are things we’ve invested in and I feel like they validated all that we’ve been doing…It feels really good.”

DDA Chairman Mark Brink added that moving forward, the city will need input from residents to make things happen.

“The amount of money that the DDA brings in isn’t millions of dollars, it’s not even close. The way we can maybe leverage and get larger projects done is something just like this where it literally didn’t cost us anything to get this information,” Brink said. “Now we have it, we’re going to get a couple thousand bucks, which might not go far but if it’s the start of the snowball that can roll into something bigger, then that’s how you get it started. And the other way you keep it rolling is to get other people involved…The more information we get from people, whether it be negative or positive, we can do something with it.”

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