Albion-to-Marshall Project a Finalist in Ford College Community Challenge

Student-driven Twelve-Mile Challenge in running for $25,000 grant from automaker

June 15, 2016

By Chuck Carlson

It is 12 miles from Albion to Marshall. Some might say it’s a lot farther than that, while others would claim the two towns are much closer—that they are more like one greater community.

In an effort to bridge the distance, Albion College is one of 20 universities and colleges nationally to be named a finalist in the 2016 Ford College Community Challenge, which focuses on finding student-led projects that address the theme of “Building Sustainable Communities.” Other finalists include Brigham Young University, Carnegie Mellon University, Harvard University, Ohio State University, the University of Michigan and the University of Washington.

Albion’s project is titled “The Twelve-Mile Challenge” and is in line to be one of up to 10 proposals that could be awarded a $25,000 grant by the Ford Motor Company Fund. (Watch a video describing the Albion project on Ford’s website.)

The College learned earlier this month that it was among the finalists; it will find out in mid-July whether it will be one of the grant recipients. If so, the grant would help fund several projects from trail restoration to transportation that would literally and figuratively tie together the 12 miles from Albion to Marshall.

Gregg Strand, Albion College’s director of corporate and foundation relations, said the plan to apply for the grant was months in the making. Several students worked on various pieces of the proposal, but it took on a special urgency when City of Albion voters agreed in May to allow its school system to be annexed into the Marshall Public Schools.

Instead of viewing annexation as a blow to Albion, the students and others at the College and across the two towns saw an opportunity: the distance between Albion and Marshall could serve as a call to action.

“This grant is about building sustainable communities,” said Strand, adding that The Twelve-Mile Challenge idea would have gone nowhere were it not for Danielle Nelson, ’17, Aaron Smit, ’18, Justin Kraft, ’18, and others stepping forward and taking charge.

In a four-minute video created by Marshall videographer Ben Reed for presentation to the Challenge, the student trio as well as community members and College President Mauri Ditzler spoke of their plans to connect Albion to Marshall “by trail, by river, by rail and by road,” accepting The Twelve-Mile Challenge to link the communities.

For Nelson, whose efforts also played a key role in a $294,000 state grant that will go toward a one-mile extension of the Albion River Trail, working on this project was a natural fit.

“The biggest [trail] gap in the county is between Marshall and Albion,” said Nelson, who is a board member for the Calhoun County Trailway Alliance. “Any way we can bring attention to that corridor is great.”

Smit has launched Albion Outfitters, a canoe and kayak livery service that he hopes will increase traffic on the Kalamazoo River, his goal being to connect the two towns by waterway.

Kraft will use his interest in engineering to create a canoe/kayak carrier for the Albion Marshall Connector, a bus that transports Albion residents to Marshall for work, shopping and medical care.

“We’re trying to create physical links between the two communities,” Nelson said. “But you also have intangible connections. It’s recognition for the larger community that we’re trying to create.”

Strand acknowledges that Albion may not receive a grant despite the students’ best effort. The larger objective, though, is showing a college and its community working together.

“There are bigger priorities and rewards than the grant,” he said.

“Absolutely,” Nelson agreed. “It doesn’t take a lot of money to build a community if you do it the right way. If people participate and believe, it doesn’t take a lot of money to get behind it. It’s absolutely important to keep trying. People respond when they see that sincerity. People really do care. It’s just a matter of reaching out and getting more people to care.”

Learn more about The Twelve-Mile Challenge