Milan, pronounced MY-lan (not like Italy’s Mi-LAN) is a small town in Southeast Michigan with a lot of charm, and as it was quickly found, a lot of spirit.
In 2015 the Michigan Rural Council (MRC), a CEDAM program, went to Milan and conducted a community assessment. These assessments allow rural communities to affordably identify both their challenges and their assets, and then implement long-term planning based on their goals for the community. The key to these assessments is that they are community led, and all residents have the opportunity to have their voice heard.
It was identified in Milan that they should become a Main Street program, which is a nation-wide movement “helping communities revitalize their downtowns and commercial districts.” They also established that they should start a farmers’ market.
Over the next year, programs formulated and people came on board to help Milan meet their new goals. In February 2016 Milan officially became a Main Street program. They then applied to CEDAM to host an AmeriCorps VISTA member. By summer they were holding weekly farmers’ markets. In August their AmeriCorps VISTA member, Tori Dillinger, started her year of service.
Dillinger studied international political economy at Carthage College and developed an interest in economic development, with a specific interest in small, midwestern towns. She’s from a small town in Indiana herself, and when she found Milan’s AmeriCorps VISTA post she said it seemed like a perfect fit.
As winter approached, an idea formulated to showcase one of Milan’s recently renovated vacant buildings. They started a pop-up marketplace where local artisans could sell their wares and take home most of the profits, a small portion going toward the program.
“There was a lot of interest generated,” Dillinger said. “There aren’t a lot of retail options currently downtown, so people noticed it.”
Fast forward to summer 2017 and it was time for the outdoor farmers’ market to start back up. However, it was realized that their weekly market had struggled to compete with the ones in surrounding areas, so they decided to do something different. They implemented their “Third Thursday” events which — you guessed it — are less frequent, themed events that happen every third Thursday of the month. Their first event with the theme “Celebrate Michigan” took place on June 20.
“It still has the basic artisan and farmers’ market component in the city square, but there was an addition of food trucks; businesses were encouraged to participate, and a good number of them offered deals or specials; we had games out for the kids; one of the churches got involved and we had music,” Dillinger said.
The idea of having events less frequently was intended to create a bigger, more exciting experience.
“Having these larger events once a month definitely brings out more people. It’s more of an ‘event’ to go to. During the first Third Thursday people were out and about, just everywhere, and I know some of the businesses got increased foot traffic,” Dillinger said. “After the events closed down the town was way more lively than it would usually be on a Thursday night — people stuck around after the event to hang out or go to local restaurants.”
July’s event “Summer BBQ” added on to June’s components to include a beer garden and a local Milan food truck specializing in BBQ. Future themes include “Maker’s Market” (August), “Swing September (September) and “Harvest Festival” (October).
“One thing that impressed me when I came to Milan was the energy in the community and the momentum it had to move forward,” Dillinger said. “Being able to be a part of that and kind of keep the ball rolling and help the community grow and come together has been a really cool part of the experience.”
To learn more about the Milan’s Third Thursday events and the Main Street program head to their Facebook page.