Mike Ross grew up in Jackson, Calif., west of Lake Tahoe in the beautiful Sierra Nevada. He later spent 15 years in one of the most exciting cities on Earth – New York.
He came here nearly a dozen years ago to run Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Then he would have agreed with the stereotype of Champaign-Urbana as a sleepy university town surrounded by corn and soy fields.
Soon he saw C-U become a much more lively, energetic and innovative place. Eventually he came up with the term micro-urban (originally used by urban planners to describe small urban areas with patterns of high-energy usage) to describe C-U and similar cities with fewer than 200,000 people and with attributes usually associated with larger metropolitan areas.
"Among these are a vibrant arts/culture/nightlife scene, an internationally diverse demographic, a strong technology base and a palpably animated public discourse on major societal and global concerns such as sustainability and the environment," Ross said.
And not to mention none of the hassles of metro areas such as time-consuming, sluggish traffic; a high cost of living; and a lack of a sense of community.
Now he and Krannert staff are cranking up the volume about C-U being a micro-urban "exemplar" by releasing an open-source toolkit that anyone may use.
The heart of it is a video touting C-U as a high-tech, vibrant city and the birthplace of inventions that have led to a seemingly inordinate number of world-renowned prizes.
And, at Ross' direction, Melia Smith at One Main Realty created, with persistence, a Wikipedia entry on the term micro-urban as it relates to cities like C-U.
The Web site www.micro-urbanist.com has a link to the Wikipedia entry and will eventually have the video, micro-urban "mark" and other toolkit materials for anyone to download. "People should feel inspired to create additional tools to help advance awareness of Champaign-Urbana as a micro-urban population center," said Vanessa Burgett, the Krannert graphic designer who worked on the project along with three other staff members.
The fast-paced, well-executed two-minute video, masterminded by Ross, was created by Burgett, Rebecca McBride, Val Oliveiro and Jon Schoenoff. It was previewed earlier this month at the "Corporate Circuit Night: Micro-Urban Style" party at Krannert. Shown at least twice, the video received a lot of oohs and aahs from spectators, among them interim University of Illinois President Stan Ikenberry, who told Ross that night he would like every UI alumnus to see it.
The video opens with a photograph by Oliveiro, resident photographer at Krannert, of UI students of Indian and Pakistani ancestry playing cricket on a green space on campus.
Soon other images flash by. Among them are depictions of diverse groups of (mostly young) people dancing, a DJ spinning in a nightclub and evening shots of downtown Champaign with blurred traffic.
It ends with a shot of a huge silo marked (some might say vandalized) by graffiti and then zooms into the 2-D identity mark created by Burgett, with the text, "C-U. Champaign-Urbana. Smart. Innovative. Micro-urban."
The images and text are accompanied by abstract electronic music developed by Schoenoff, audio director at Krannert.
The video certainly gives C-U bragging rights, especially as it tells of community pluses and the accomplishments of people who have lived here or who live here.
Among major high-tech advances developed here, according to the video text, written by McBride, are "the microchip, the first graphical Web browser, light-emitting diodes, magnetic resonance imaging, the theory of superconductivity, the transistor, new cancer treatments, bio-degradable implants, DNA biosensors and flexible solar cells."
And C-U also has "an award-winning mass transit district, Zipcars, hybrid buses, biofuels, green architects, molecular and electronic nanostructures and bike lanes."
The text goes on: "We are a top 10 Green City, a top 10 Tech City (no wonder, since we're building the most powerful computer in the world, estimated to conduct 10 quadrillion operations per second).
"We're home to one of the world's great research universities, the leading university-based performing arts center, one of the nation's most elite public high schools (Uni, according to Newsweek magazine), the richest soil on Earth, one of the world's largest libraries, an international guitar festival, an international film festival, the Illinois Marathon, world-renowned entrepreneurs, museums, galleries, jazz clubs, dance clubs, blues clubs."
"And we've got numbers: 24 Nobel laureates, 29 Olympians, 27 National Medal of Science recipients, six MacArthur Genius Awards, 20 Pulitzer Prize winners, 36 Grammy Awards, 11 Tony Awards, 24 Emmy Awards.
"14 minutes. Average commute time. How sweet is that?"
That commute time has drawn the most comments from viewers, McBride said. Most say their commutes here are even shorter.
It is impressive to see C-U's good things (not all made the list, for sake of brevity) put together like this.
Ross hopes businesses use the toolkit to recruit and retain employees and that other entities, including local TV stations, use it to promote C-U. He has already begun using it to spread the word to artists who pass through Krannert Center.
"While Krannert Center is widely known across the world by the performing arts field, it has been a desire of mine for a long time to have a succinct way of giving artists in other parts of the world – and their managers and representatives – a meaningful sense of the fabulous community that is host to the center," he said. "The micro-urban toolkit will give us that."
Krannert staff also built a "photo wall" that includes some of the images and text in the video. The photo wall recently was installed at Willard Airport and another is to go into the new I Hotel and Conference Center on campus.
Ross introduced his micro-urban concept to business leaders at Ed Scharlau's economic summit in April. He said the positive response led him to direct his staff to develop the micro-urban toolkit.
He acknowledged that "micro-urban" as it relates to C-U might not resonate with everybody.
But, "Our experience so far is it's been resonating with a lot of people who see it for the first time," he said.
You can reach News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli at 351-5367 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.