Close-knit community creates local business haven in downtown Williamston

Print More

Justin McVay, owner of Manafold Games, plays Magic the Gathering with a local teen. “I like that this place is going to be a community center for teens,” he said.

When he was younger, Justin McVay turned to games to bring him out of his shell. Video games did not require social interaction at the time but he found board and card games pushed him in a way to interact with people in a way he did not normally. But that did not bother him. In fact, it made him more social and happy.

It was only natural for him to want to spread that joy to others, so he got the idea to open a gaming store. After 10 years of thinking, planning and saving, McVay found the perfect place to open his new store: Williamston, Michigan.

Williamston’s small community, openness to privately-owned business and high per capita income led him and his wife to open Manafold Games on Nov. 19.

“I finally decided on Williamston because it just fit everything the best,” he said.

Williamston’s community and active downtown has made it a haven for privately-owned business like McVay’s. Ninety percent of businesses in the city are not chains, Williamston’s Downtown Development Authority Chair Dawn-Marie Joseph said. Even more, Joseph said 20 out of 30 businesses downtown have been around for 10 years or longer.

A new scene

The town’s business scene gained a good reputation after being an antiquing town for decades. Now, Joseph said retail and restaurants dominate the downtown.

“One of the things that Williamston has really changed around the last five years is we have some really great restaurants,” she said. “It’s really become a destination dining.”

Some community staples have been popular in town for years, despite changes like new ownership. Red Cedar Grill opened in 1998 but changed ownership in 2012. Despite the change, the restaurant has stayed successful, manager Trish Lyon said.

The new owner bought the restaurant after deciding to follow his lifelong passion instead of continuing his career in banking. Lyon said he wanted to buy an established restaurant. That’s how he found the Red Cedar Grill.

“It had been here for a while and it had a good reputation, it had a good location, and it was for sale,” Lyon said. “Because it had a good reputation, it would be a good way for him to get into the restaurant business without him having to get into the business completely.”

Now, the New-American cuisine restaurant is as popular as ever. Williamston and greater Lansing residents frequent for lunch and dinner. Even some visitors from Grand Rapids and metro-Detroit stop for a meal because of its proximity to I-96. The change in ownership hasn’t stopped locals from coming.

“We have regulars that have been coming here since it opened and they still come here,” Lyon said. “That’s been one of the nice things.”

Problems for different perspectives

Despite harboring a community of entrepreneurs, not every business in Williamston turns a perfect profit. Matt Mulford, co-owner of Peculiar Perspectives, said his art gallery and studio is no money maker despite the overall success of businesses in town.

The gallery is located upstairs in Keller’s Plaza, a historic building downtown. Even with its history, Mulford said people often do not know businesses exist above the main floor.

The door to Peculiar Perspectives in Williamston, Michigan. The art gallery and studio has been open for two years. Photo/McKenna Ross

The door to Peculiar Perspectives in Williamston, Michigan. The art gallery and studio has been open for two years. Photo/McKenna Ross

“Unfortunately, that’s one thing that hinders us; Just the fact that people don’t know you can come upstairs in this old building and the fact that there are shops up here and there have been shops for years,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing we’re up against, for the retail side of things. For a studio, it’s great because we probably won’t be bothered.”

Mulford and his friend Tony Steele leased the space two years ago without planning on getting a space together. They loved the place and the rent was a good price, so they decided to try it out. Plus, Mulford said, it encourages them to go out of their house to work on their art.

But even after establishing their gallery in Williamston, Mulford said he still cannot figure out the market in town. The community is supportive and helpful, but he and Steele have yet to see significant growth in their business.

“I still haven’t figured out Williamston yet,” he said. “I don’t consider that we’ve broken through yet or gotten any good wisdom from being here yet… Being a small town, you have the small town feel, which is amazing. But monetarily-wise, it’s not been a huge moneymaker.”

Small town feel

Though some businesses are slower than others, Williamston Chamber of Commerce President Brian Vicary said he is not worried. There is only four vacant buildings downtown and the chamber has 180 members this year.

williamston-business-final-story

Having a busy downtown is vital to the town’s economy. Events, help from individuals and other businesses keep businesses interacting with the community, Vicary said.

“We have the ability to help foster growth just because we bring so many people into the community with our events,” he said, including the Light Parade, pop-up art shows and more.

To Vicary, one of the main reasons Williamston’s economy is so successful is the culture of the town. People know Williamston as a shopping destination and will go there for everything they may need. Individuals planning their weddings can get their dress, flowers and invitations on one street, he said.

“(It’s a) one stop shop,” he said. “You can go to one location and order your wedding dress, walk across the street to order your flowers and walk across the street and get invitations printed. It’s the connection of the people. All small towns are different, that’s for sure, but this one definitely has a cultural feel with it.”

Amy Cogswell is a co-owner of The Party Shoppe, a toy shop and party rental store in downtown. She opened her storefront three years ago out of the convenience of the location, but said she’s stayed because of the community.

“I really like that I know my customers,” Cogswell said. “I have regulars with rentals and with walk-ins. If someone comes in and want something specific that we don’t carry, I’m able to get that for them. It’s nice to be able to work one-on-one with people and know them.”

For McVay’s new business, building up a reputation in the community is a big priority. They’re hoping to schedule events throughout the week, including family game nights, euchre leagues and scrabble tournaments.

The small town appeal brought him and his wife into Williamston, now he wants to become a niche in the community and a place for teenagers like him to get out of their shells.

“I like that this place is going to be a community center for teens,” he said. “It’ll be a place for Williamston kids to socialize.”