Sunday, August 9, 2020

'I don't think anyone really knows': Future uncertain for East Lansing small businesses

April 2, 2020
Downtown East Lansing on April 1, 2020.
Downtown East Lansing on April 1, 2020. —
Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

On top of being home to Michigan State, East Lansing is also home to a number of businesses that thrive off the college community. 

Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, many of these businesses are struggling  to keep afloat as East Lansing starts to look more like a ghost town than a college town. 

MSU made the decision to move all in-person classes online through the remainder of the semester March 14, which had an immediate effect on the city’s businesses. 

“When the university closed, for us that’s when things started changing — sending the students home,” co-owner of Groovy Donuts Monica Lucas said. 

Having opened their East Lansing location in September 2016, Groovy Donuts was beginning to take off, Lucas said. 

“We're right around the corner from starting to be able to pay off some debts for good and start taking off,” Lucas said. “And when the university sent the students home, we lost over 60% of our event orders, which are hundreds of dollars that we already had. A lot of them needed to be refunded immediately.”

Lucas said she and co-owner Andrew Gauthier had to cancel and refund many orders, even though some of the ingredients had already been purchased. 

On March 16, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered all bars and restaurants to close temporarily, offering only takeout and delivery options, which allowed many stores to still remain open.

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Throughout the state, many businesses have been participating in "Takeout Tuesdays" and "The Great American Takeout," creating deals for customers to continue supporting businesses.

“We’re getting a decent amount of orders,” Panda Express manager Kwan Kim said. “But still, compared to before this whole virus outbreak thing, we are losing a lot of money.”

Whitmer’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order on March 23 called for the closure of all nonessential businesses. This led Curious Book Shop and Archives Book Shop owner Ray Walsh to transition his 50-year-old “nonessential” business online

In addition to applying for loans, Walsh created a GoFundMe page for his stores, seeking donations to “(keep) the books housed, the lights on, the rent paid and our employees fed,” as it says on the page. 

Curious Book Shop is also offering books to those who donate, and in the four days since it was started, nearly $7,000 has been fundraised.

“While we're doing our best to adapt to these strange times by shifting focus to our online stores, the loss of the foot traffic we relied on so heavily before has consequently endangered our livelihood,” Walsh wrote on the fundraiser page.

Having graduated from MSU in 1971, Walsh has been at the forefront of the East Lansing community for decades. He began selling books out of his house as a student in 1969, eventually making his way to the current Curious Book Shop location on Grand River Avenue in 1973, and then opened up Archives Book Shop further down Grand River Avenue in 1987.

“We've never really been in this kind of situation before. East Lansing really is a ghost town right now and nobody is out and about,” Walsh said. “We still are selling books online, and we're on Etsy and various other search engines.”

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Organizations have begun helping these struggling businesses. Whitmer announced the availability of emergency relief funding for small businesses on March 19. 

The Lansing Economic Area Partnership, or LEAP, has been working with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, or MEDC, and other state economic development organizations to develop programs to allocate funds to small businesses in the Lansing region, according to LEAP's website.  

LEAP was allocated $600,000 in emergency small business relief grant funds from the MEDC to distribute 60 $10,000 grants to Lansing area small businesses, according to LEAP's website.

Many other businesses are having to close their doors for the time being, as the future is uncertain.

“It's frustrating to any business right now because you can't really make a whole lot of plans. We're just doing the best we can and trying to coordinate our efforts,” Walsh said. “It's upsetting to us to have to let staff go, but when there's no work that we can do, we, you know, we're a nonessential business according to the state, but ... it's essential for us to survive.”

Both Curious Book Shop and Groovy Donuts have had to lay off some of their staff. Groovy Donuts has all but one part-time baker remaining, according to their Facebook page. Lucas and Gauthier have had to come in to bake themselves all night and have also shifted to being open  for only four hours a day, Thursday through Sunday. 

Groovy Donuts has kept their business alive using social media as well, frequently keeping their followers up to date. They posted a video to Facebook asking for help from customers, which now has over 300 shares.

“You’ve done a lot already and we are very grateful,” Lucas said in the video, addressing her customers. “What I ask of you now is for maybe a little more push for the government to consider us for these grants and loans.” 

In the last year, Lucas said in the video, Groovy Donuts  hosted a number of charity events and donated $10,000 worth of donuts and other merchandise to the community. This support is the only thing Lucas has asked for in return, she said, and has since seen great responses and support from the community. 

“All small businesses drive our community. And I don't want anybody to think that I think that we are more important than our neighbors,” Lucas said. “I think it's a horrible situation for everyone. I am, however, trying everything in my power to keep my business going, because it is my life.”

Some East Lansing business owners have witnessed others in the area struggling to stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It's going to cause, I think, a dramatic negative effect in that many businesses, ourselves included, do rely on the student body and the professors and the alumni to survive,” Walsh said. “And it's simply going to be an uphill battle and we appreciate all the assistance that we can get right now. I don't think really anybody expected anything like this or knew it was coming. (They) would have prepared better for it.”

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As the virus continues to spread, businesses continue to feel uncertain about their futures. 

"I think that the problem is that there's so much uncertainty. I highly doubt we're going to be off of the shelter in place anytime soon,” Lucas said. “It's just for how much longer, I mean, if it's 'till June, which I think is very likely, it could go 'till June. I don't know how many of us there will be left.”

As for what East Lansing could look like after the pandemic, no one said they could be sure.

"You know, I have a background in fantasy and science fiction and this really isn't anything that I've imagined is the future,” Walsh said. “And I don't think anyone really knows. We have new construction that's kind of stopped, and we have other plans to go forward with other things, but if nobody's coming into town, it makes things a lot different — and not on the positive side for sure.”


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