Before Christine Malzahn, Director of Imlay City’s Downtown Development Authority even spoke, she piqued interest with her prop – a replica downtown street lamp post displaying a banner with a name, image and “I AM Imlay City” scrawled down the side. When she did start to speak it felt almost like a poem.

“Consumers Energy let’s put Imlay City on the MAP! with our unique, innovative ‘I AM Imlay City’ community storytelling interactive art project. Our project is quite simple…it’s about people.  People like us who make stories, and those stories that make places, and those places that build our communities. A community created by seeing its people, knowing its people, and by making its people feel important.”

The name on the prototype banner was of 12th grade Imlay City student Ayleen Hernandez, the image was one that resembles her, giving an idea of what a self-portrait might look like. A QR code on the banner takes you to a YouTube channel where Hernandez talks about the art she created and how she represents Imlay City. And that banner is just the beginning after Imlay City was awarded the top prize of $25,000 at Consumers Energy’s Put Your Town on the Map competition.

The “Our Past Creates Our Future – I AM Imlay City” project will be an interactive video/audio walking tour art display. “It will showcase our historical figures, current contributors and future leaders,” said Malzahn.

She indicated there has been a lot of interest from the community already including high school art students, the art teacher and even the chief of police.

“It’s so amazing that we can feature these everyday people who are living their best life in Imlay City,” she said.

And while Imlay City was the big winner, they weren’t the only winner.

The 10 finalists made their pitches during the Small Town and Rural Development Conference.

Rogers City – in Presque Isle County – received the $15,00 second place prize for a public art sculpture. And coming in third was St. Johns, in Clinton County, for community artistic benches.

“The passion displayed by these participants underscores how meaningful funding like this can be to truly grow and strengthen our small communities,” said Angela Thompkins, chief diversity officer and vice president of community affairs, who served as emcee for this year’s competition. “We look forward to seeing how the projects will benefit their region and enhance placemaking within their communities.”

Malzahn said she plans to get to work quickly, having contributors make official submissions and getting them in the MITT TV studio to record their stories. While Malzahn and team get to work on the I AM Imlay City project, she said people don’t have to wait to visit. Currently Imlay City may be seen as the gateway to the thumb – a passthrough to get gas on the way to their destination – but Malzahn said it offers so much more.  “Downtown is an old manufacturing city – but we are bringing our town back – and the DDA under my direction are being proactive to do the work and attract the mom and pops to live their best life.”

Check out these past Put Your Town on the Map winners:

Three Michigan Communities win the Consumers Energy Foundation’s 2023 Put Your Town On The Map Pitch Competition

How Big Ideas are Helping Grow Michigan’s Small Towns

Pinckney’s Community Garden goes from Grassroots to Full Bloom Thanks to Consumers Energy Foundation Grant