Spartans a crucial factor in Lansing’s economic and social stability

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The Michigan State "S" is visible on the awning of the university's Center for Community and Economic Development on Michigan Avenue. The center is one of many outreach programs connecting MSU with its neighbor to the west. Photo by Maxwell Evans

Perhaps a more appropriate name for our state capital would be West East Lansing.

Without the pool of money-spending, forward-thinking and beer-drinking undergraduates attending Michigan State University, the population of the Lansing metro area would shrink by about 50,000. Factor in the lost spending money and thinking power that would go along with the sudden disappearance of a Big Ten university and the results would be even more disastrous than simple population loss.

Even Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce member Michelle Rahl thinks the city of Lansing depends heavily on its neighboring university for sustained economic health.

“MSU is an economic driver for the entire region, and one might argue, for the entire state,” Rahl said. “I think the economic impact of the student population, at Michigan State University and beyond, cannot be overstated.”

Neil Kane, MSU’s Director of Undergraduate Entrepreneurship, agrees that Lansing would struggle without the university. He said that because of this, he and others work hard to ensure that the city has “the necessary ingredients” to capitalize on its proximity to a huge institution of higher learning.

“The contribution the university makes economically, directly and indirectly, is immense,” Kane said. “MSU has 50,000 students, so it’s hard to escape the contribution that a population that large makes to a relatively small town. There are many people who have an interest in having students stick around the Lansing area.”

One of those people interested in whether students stay in the area after graduation is Tony Willis of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, or LEAP. A Spartan graduate, he got a job in the city right after college and stuck around. As the current director of LEAP’s New Economy Division, Willis says he is in charge of a division that focuses on “entrepreneurship and building new industry in Lansing,” something that is important to do in a city with a school like Michigan State sitting the next town over.

The shortest drive from MSU's campus to Lansing city limits is only one minute, from Rather Hall to near Frandor Shopping Center. Map by Google Maps and Maxwell Evans

The shortest drive from MSU’s campus to Lansing city limits is only one minute, from Rather Hall to near Frandor Shopping Center. Map by Google Maps and Maxwell Evans

“The university provides so much on so many different levels,” Willis said. “It puts an influx of talent into our community, provides educational outreach … [MSU] changes the city’s culture when it comes to entrepreneurship.”

Rahl added that without Spartan ideas, entrepreneurship and money being funneled into Lansing, “the ripple effect on area businesses would be tremendous.” She feels that this is a reason that local businesses in all sectors attempt to appeal to the MSU crowd, something that gives the entire region a “college town” feel.

“This is ‘Spartan Country,’ through and through,” Rahl said. “Companies that are the most successful have the best understanding of their clients and customers, including MSU students.”

Although Rahl believes Lansing businesses actively target Spartans on the consumer end, Kane thinks Lansing isn’t as successful at targeting future entrepreneurs. He said that the reasons for this may be hard to address, because some of them have nothing to do with Lansing itself.

“Of students who come to MSU and start businesses, a few will stay in Lansing, but most of them tend to think of developing businesses in an area closer to their hometown,” Kane said. “There’s a strong bias in favor of staying close to home, assuming the area you’re from has the resources that are needed to sustain a business.”

Willis also thinks the city and region need to do a better job at retaining more of the sizable pool of Spartans that graduate every year. He thinks it will take continued growth in areas like nightlife and attractive housing for young professionals to convince MSU grads to keep their business close by.

“We have a higher volume of startups [coming from MSU], but when it comes to lasting small businesses in the area, those are typically from outside sources,” Willis said. “I’d say only a small percentage [of students] stick around. That’s an area our community can improve upon.”

To live or not to live in Lansing
The relationship between the city of Lansing and Michigan State goes far deeper than simply economics though. The university and Lansing almost overlap; only a one-minute drive stands between Lansing’s eastern boundary and Michigan State’s westernmost dorm, Rather Hall. This closeness means that, especially in Lansing’s Eastside neighborhood, students comprise a significant portion of the population.

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This three-bedroom house on Center Street in East Lansing, a five-minute walk from campus, is available for rent for $1,830 a month. Photo by Maxwell Evans

Some of these students are trying to bypass the highly competitive East Lansing student housing market. According to Trulia, from March 13 to April 13, the average rent paid for apartments in East Lansing was $1,500 a month. The average monthly rent in Lansing over that same time was half that, only $750.

That isn’t simply a month-by-month fluke, either. Since April 2016, the average rent in Lansing peaked at $850 a month, which is still cheaper than East Lansing’s low of $962 a month over the same span.

Ariel Powers, a sophomore at Michigan State, lives in a house on Lansing’s Eastside because she and her two roommates were able to secure a good deal on a rental. She says the ability to live somewhere for cheap was the “deciding factor” in her choice to live in the city.

“In EL … people are paying anywhere from $500-$1,000 a month, sometimes more, for just one room in a house or apartment,” Powers said. “In Lansing, I can pay less than $400 with all utilities included.”

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This three-bedroom house on Clemens Street in Lansing is available for rent for less than half of the price of the one on Center, at $750 a month. Despite only being about a five-minute drive from MSU, rent in this neighborhood tends to be far lower than it is in East Lansing. Photo by Maxwell Evans

However, Nancy Mahlow, president of Lansing’s Eastside Neighborhood Organization, said she sees realtors and renters trying to lessen the gap in her neighborhood. She says that landlords often try to capitalize on the Eastside’s proximity to MSU, “taking advantage” of students by charging more for rent than a similar house in another part of the city would go for.

Despite some criticism for it, Mahlow said she has tried in the past to stop the “exploitation” of her student neighbors, only to see prices continue to rise.

“I tried to have a rental moratorium put in place 15 or 20 years ago and I wore a target on my back,” Mahlow said. “People were saying ‘Nancy’s anti-rental, Nancy’s anti-student,’ when that’s not it at all. I just feel [prices] should be fair.”

“We’ve got good property owners and landlords but unfortunately the bad outweighs the good.”

Eastside resident and 2016 MSU graduate Duncan Tarr worries that as rent climbs, permanent Lansing residents are going to be priced out of their homes, building resentment between neighbors.

“In some ways, the disconnect between MSU and Lansing makes Lansing residents feel negatively about what they see as the influence of students,” Tarr said. “The super-expensive developments going in near Frandor and along the Michigan Avenue corridor are going to increase rents for long-time residents.”

Tarr thinks the solution to this tension is for Lansing-based MSU students to reach out to their often-temporary neighbors and actively serve in their community. He says he is going to be in Lansing for more than five years, and that the city needs more young people to stick around and be a positive force.

“We, as students, ex-students, or youth, have an obligation to counteract these processes that are in many ways beyond our control,” Tarr said, “by getting involved in projects that make the city a better place.

“I think we should consider how we can serve [the Lansing community] rather than how they can serve us.”

Other students want to try living in a more realistic urban setting instead of one that is incredibly skewed towards the young – 69.9 percent of East Lansing residents are under age 25 – and escape MSU’s omnipresence in its home city. Mahlow thinks that students like this will feel right at home on the Eastside.

This chart compares the percentage of population under 25 among East Lansing, Lansing, Michigan and the United States. Source: 2010 U.S. Census

This chart compares the populations under 25 among East Lansing, Lansing, Michigan and the United States. Source: 2010 U.S. Census

“One of the big draws… [is] being able to be connected with your neighbors versus living in student housing or something like that,” Mahlow said. “It gives [students] a little bit more freedom, a little bit more ownership.”

Powers views this relative freedom from MSU’s pull as less of a good thing. Despite moving to the city because it made financial sense, she said she feels “limited” by the lack of social opportunities to be found in the city for college students, especially those not legally able to drink.

“I wish the town had more for people my age,” Powers said. “There’s plenty to do if you’re at least 21, but I feel the options for those 18-20 are limited. I wish I was closer to East Lansing so that I could be closer to campus.”

Tarr thinks this feeling is common, that young people and students wrongly view Lansing “as a city where nothing happens.”

“There is so much happening here, irrespective of what the MSU population thinks about it,” Tarr said. “People migrate here from all over the world, there is a vibrant political action scene, and a lot of great local bands.”

Spartans and urban life don’t always mix
How could anyone consider a city with access to more than 50,000 young adults to be boring, anyways? From errant parking to noise complaints to parties that disturb permanent residents of the area, Mahlow said her Eastside student neighbors can sometimes be troublesome. After all, Lansing’s separation from campus doesn’t mean college kids won’t still be college kids; sometimes, they just simply bring their social lives (and everything that comes with it) to the city with them.

She recounted how last summer, a fraternity was evicted from one house on the south end of Clemens and moved to another on the north end of the street because of their disruptions. Even an eviction didn’t bring an end to the partying and fighting, and Mahlow felt no other choice but to report the fraternity to Michigan State in an attempt to bring peace to her neighborhood.

“We ended up getting a hold of MSU and notifying the department that oversees frats and sororities and told them we’ve had enough,” Mahlow said. “You always have to have a bad penny in the bunch.”

These bad pennies sometimes leave Mahlow fearing all future students will cause the same problems. However, other student residents who make “good neighbors” and are involved in the community counter this feeling, leading her to believe MSU students are, overall, a benefit to her neighborhood.

“Our student population is a great asset,” Mahlow said. “We just need to work on [making] them feel welcome and [making] them understand they’re living in a neighborhood and not in EL, where there’s a different atmosphere.”

Different strokes for different folks
This atmosphere difference plays a big part in students’ choices of where to live. Paul Tierney, a sophomore at MSU who has lived in the dorms his first two years on campus, is transitioning to an apartment in East Lansing for next year. He says that in determining where to live, he “never really considered living in Lansing,” in part because of the difference in living among peers in East Lansing and living among a more varied group in Lansing.

“In EL I know all my neighbors are going to be fellow students for the most part,” Tierney said. “But in Lansing, I could be neighbors with any variety of families, and I’m just not sure how well all of that would mix.”

A busy college lifestyle also can hinder students’ desire to live in Lansing. Tierney says that between the classes, clubs, parties and friends he has in East Lansing, it is just easier to live closer to the university his life is currently centered around.

“It’s not that Lansing is bad or too intense, in fact it’s a super nice place to live next to for the occasional visit,” Tierney said. “EL is just so much more convenient for so many reasons.”

Rahl, who is the Director of Business Development for the Chamber of Commerce, hopes that Spartans who think like Tierney expand their definition of “college experience” and take some time to explore and enjoy Lansing, if not live in it.

“If you have not yet experienced all that the city has to offer, then how do you know what you might be missing?” Rahl said. “Follow the River Trail and grab a slice of great pizza at Cosmo’s in Old Town. Take in a Lugnuts’ ball game on a Thirsty Thursday. The more you explore, the more fun you really do have.”

Lansing residents hope MSU students can see Lansing for more than the town next door and appreciate an active city they can be a positive part of, or even live in if they choose to. As Tarr puts it, summing up MSU students’ impact on the city quite succinctly:

“The city … is what we, collectively, make it.”