A downtown deserted
With a vibrant population of college students, why does East Lansing still lack a vibrant downtown feel?
It’s a familiar scene for the city of East Lansing. The summer rolls along, MSU students leave the city, and with them, they take their business to other locales. Although most businesses are able to weather the loss of business, there are some that have to close shop, leaving behind desolate storefronts.
In a six-block stretch along East Lansing’s busiest street, there currently are at least six properties that sit empty — including the former location of National Coney Station, 565 E. Grand River Ave., which has been vacant since the restaurant closed over a year ago.
Bill Mansfield, chairman of East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority, or DDA, said although there are a number of empty storefronts in the downtown area, it isn’t a problem that’s unique to East Lansing.
Not So Grand River:
A State News series on how East Lansing lacks a downtown
Monday’s Part 1: Why E.L.‘s empty
Tuesday’s Part 2: What E.L. officials Want
“I think that the occupancy rates in East Lansing are relative to the state of Michigan,” he said. “Generally speaking, I think we’re holding our own from an occupancy standpoint.”
However, Mansfield said East Lansing does run into some issues maintaining a thriving community that other college towns might not.
For one, Mansfield said the ratio of students to permanent residents is much higher in East Lansing than a town like Ann Arbor. He added that businesses in Ann Arbor have an easier time weathering the summer months, when the university’s student population leaves the area.
For businesses like What Up Dawg?, 317 M.A.C Ave., the summer lull can be especially brutal. The local hot dog restaurant was forced to close its doors for the month of July when the drop-off in business from students leaving — combined with construction in the area — became too much to bear.
“One of the worst things about business is not knowing what to expect,” owner Seth Tompkins told The State News in a previous interview. “We were expecting like a 50 percent hit, and we’re getting like a 70 percent hit instead.”
So it goes
Planning and Community Development Director Tim Dempsey said in his eight years with the city, empty real estate is nothing new.
“There’s always turnover in retail space,” he said.
Dempsey said although there isn’t really a specific type of business that struggles in the downtown area, the ones that stick around are the ones that do more than just fill a location. They must also manage the customer experience and understand their competition.
But above all, Dempsey said the businesses have to fill a need for the citizens, something Ray Walsh has done for almost 40 years.
Walsh owns Curious Book Shop, which has stayed in the same location at 307 E. Grand River Ave. since 1973. He said he’s managed to stay open so long because his unique venture caters to a niche market, which better serves the community.
“(We’ve) been very fortunate,” Walsh said. “Part of it is because we’re a little more unique, with a wide variety of items with a large clientele.”
He added that when there are too many empty properties, there is less of a draw for residents to come to the downtown area, making it hard on business. Walsh said he’s looking forward to the Nov. 9 opening of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, as that likely will bring more people to the area.
Making it work
While some locations sit empty, Doug Cron of Cron Management has had little trouble finding tenants for his properties.
Cron manages several properties along Grand River Avenue, and currently only the property at 213 1/2 E. Grand River Ave. is not being leased — although Cron said there is interest in the location, he just has to find the right enterprise for the location.
One thing Cron thinks makes it easier to lease properties has been to maintain the way the buildings look. He said remodeling the fronts of Five Guys Burgers and Fries, 623 E. Grand River Ave., and La Bodega, 619 E. Grand River Ave., were part of that initiative.
Still, he acknowledged that the economy of the state and the nation has had a significant impact on property rentals.
“It’s a tough market, I’m not going to deny it,” he said. “I don’t care if you go to Meridian, Texas, Petosky, anywhere. There’s vacancies.”
Dempsey said East Lansing’s upcoming development projects likely will stimulate the economy in downtown East Lansing and hopefully draw new enterprises as well.
He specifically noted the former location of Barnes and Noble, 333 E. Grand River Ave., as one that, when filled, will add vibrancy to East Lansing.
But while Barnes and Noble has left the building, new opportunities are blooming at The Hatch, 325 E. Grand River Ave., a business incubator that provides a space for student entrepreneurs to grow their own ideas.
“MSU, Lansing and East Lansing have really taken great strides the last few years in creating an environment for business startups,” DDA vice chairman Douglas Jester said. “(The Hatch’s) presence in the downtown will drive employment, and presence of more people right in the downtown will drive retail activity.”