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.”