Hillsdale res­i­dents ranked Hillsdale College and Hillsdale Hos­pital as the greatest strengths of the city and the per­va­siveness of hard drugs in the com­munity as its most dam­aging threat during an assessment for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s Rising Tide ini­tiative on Tuesday night. The attendees also ranked the city’s lack of voca­tional training as both its foremost weakness and under-uti­lized oppor­tunity, along with their concern that too many young people are leaving the city.

The forum was hosted by Place & Main, the company Snyder hired to create Hillsdale’s Rising Tide eco­nomic framework, and more than 40 people gathered at the Hillsdale Com­munity Library to par­tic­ipate. The meeting aimed to collect com­munity input through an eval­u­ation of the Hillsdale’s strengths, weak­nesses, oppor­tu­nities, and threats — infor­mation that Place & Main will compare to hard data when it gen­erates a plan to revi­talize and sta­bilize Hillsdale’s economy.

“We’re in the process of con­ducting an eco­nomic strategy for the city of Hillsdale,” Borgstrom said. “As part of this strategy, we want to engage the com­munity and try to get your per­spective on what you think needs to happen in Hillsdale.”

Out of a long com­pi­lation of the city’s assets, which included water quality, Baw Beese Lake, and the public safety department, Hillsdale College and Hillsdale Hos­pital emerged as the city’s strongest assets based on a poll of meeting attendees.

Place & Main Prin­cipal Joe Borgstrom said he sees this section of the exercise as the most valuable because of its pos­i­tivity: “Part of the reason we do this is for folks to see the strengths they have. They identify the core strengths and the core weak­nesses of the com­munity.”

When com­munity members tran­si­tioned to cat­a­loging the city’s weak­nesses, several people in the room shouted the same answer at once: “the streets.” The vote con­firmed the resident’s dis­sat­is­faction with roads and infra­structure. That cat­egory demanded only a slight majority of the votes, however, with the lack of a skilled work­force coming in second by one vote. Forum attendees dis­cussed this concern throughout the meeting, high­lighting the need for voca­tional pro­grams within Hillsdale.

The room also voted the coor­di­nation of indus­trial training and devel­opment of skilled-worker pro­grams as the highest-pri­ority oppor­tunity for the city.

“One of the things that res­onates with me that I see in my new role in Lansing is a huge acknowl­edgement of voca­tional edu­cation,” Hillsdale State Rep­re­sen­tative Eric Leutheuser, R-Hillsdale, said. “We are looking at repri­or­i­tizing our budget into skilled trade.”

Borgstrom approached the topic of threats last, and spec­ified that, in this context, the room should identify threats to Hillsdale that they cannot control. He said, noting the thun­der­storm outside, the weather could pose a threat to Hillsdale’s eco­nomic success and sta­bility. The city council, however, does not because cit­izens can vote them into or out of power. This cat­egory was rep­re­sented by far fewer ideas com­pared to the other three.

Like the city’s main weakness, the first men­tioned in the brain­storming session for threats also com­manded the most votes: Hillsdale res­i­dents are highly con­cerned with the presence of hard drugs in their com­munity.

“Drugs are going to be a threat to the middle class… and we really need our middle class,” Res­ident Susan Smith said.

Attendees also saw the rate at which young people leave the com­munity as a threat to the city’s success, a problem that drew in the most votes after drugs.

According to the city’s Action Strategy doc­ument, the Rising Tide program aims to help 10 at-risk com­mu­nities reach eco­nomic sta­bility by attracting business investment and talent. In 2015, Snyder selected Hillsdale because it exhibits high poverty and vacancy rates, and low labor par­tic­i­pation. The city also showed an oppor­tunity for change and resilience, which con­tributed to its eli­gi­bility for the program.

“This program is not meant to be a check from Lansing to a town,” Leutheuser said. “It’s meant to provide a change agent and provide an outside assessment.”

Tuesday’s forum fol­lowed a meeting of City lead­ership held in late November of last year. Those in atten­dance com­plete the same eval­u­ation res­i­dents exe­cuted at the library, and rec­om­mended the assessment be opened to the com­munity.

“It’s inter­esting how there’s a lot of good will. People want this to succeed,” Leutheuser said. “When people are coming up with per­ceived weak­nesses or threats, people responded by saying ‘we can change this, this is in our control.’”

This own­ership was evi­dence by not only the high atten­dance and par­tic­i­pation at Tuesday’s meeting, but also by the enthu­siasm voiced by com­munity members throughout the Rising Tide exercise.

“This is a great com­munity,” Smith said. “I will never leave Hillsdale County.”