Amy Lerlie says the most effective way to help transform a single neighborhood or even an entire community is a "grassroots, roll-up-your-sleeves approach." The executive director of Alger-Marquette Community Action Board (AMCAB) points to a neighborhood in the historic mining town of Ishpeming.
The transformation began with a group of senior citizens talking over coffee about how to turn things around in their neighborhood. It became the "Inspiration Zone."
Lerlie chairs the Ishpeming Neighborhood Improvement Committee (NIC), a collaboration with the school system, businesses, local police, the city and the county. Ishpeming NIC's goal is to revitalize Ishpeming's neighborhoods and build a greater sense of community. AMCAB works to remove barriers and identify funding streams.
"We serve as facilitators - bringing people and resources together to effect change," Lerlie explains. Early in the process, the Marquette County Land Bank Authority purchased two foreclosed properties. The city is tearing them down. A new affordable housing development will open early this fall.
"This grassroots group came together and now the Inspiration Zone has become a communitywide project."
A Marquette native, Lerlie came to AMCAB from the affordable housing industry, which served her well when she arrived at AMCAB in 2011 to become its housing services director. She became the executive director in January. While the combined population of Alger and Marquette counties population is relatively small - 75,000 people - it's a huge area geographically. Lerlie notes that Marquette is the largest county east of the Mississippi.
"I have a passion for our communities," she says. "I have a personal desire to help people here, because this is my community."
She lists several challenges facing the region, including housing foreclosures, food insecurity and homelessness.
"Certainly we are seeing more folks approaching age 65 who come to us for broad-based services," she explains. "We've seen a need for more commodity foods; food pantries are struggling to keep up. We're not sure of all the reasons, but it seems like people are simply unable to meet the costs of living."
This month, AMCAB celebrates its 50th anniversary. The milestone proves its "staying power," Lerlie says. "We have developed and implemented strategies to ensure our strength, which in turn means we can continue responding to the community needs now, and in the future."