Bath and DeWitt downtowns anticipate, experience development

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The neighboring communities of Bath and DeWitt differ greatly: DeWitt Township has a higher population in a smaller area than Bath Township, and the same is true for their central enclaves.

Downtown DeWitt prepares for the opening of Looking Glass Brewing Company, a new business highly anticipated by DeWitt officials and residents.

The Bath Village Diner opened its doors in early 2016. A few months later, it purchased a neighboring bar and expanded into it.

Later in the year, the diner had closed down.

“I was on a committee — we gave them an award for community outreach, and now they’re closed,” Bath Township Planning Director Brian Shorkey said.

Shorkey, who has served as planning director for roughly a year, said he was unsure if the diner closed for business or personal reasons.

The facade of what used to be the Bath Village Diner. Photo by Riley Murdock.

Bath and DeWitt currently draw a contrast in the nature of their downtown business and development — but change might be on the horizon for both.

DeWitt

Looking Glass Brewing Company, occupying a former church in downtown DeWitt, is the latest in a series of new developments in the city’s recent years.

“The church has been an icon in downtown DeWitt for many many many years, before I got there for sure,” DeWitt Mayor Sue Leeming said. “The reuse of that church as a brewpub is something you’re seeing in Grand Ledge and Howell and all sorts of communities, and so we’re just really pleased that we’re seeing the same thing in DeWitt.”

Looking Glass is hardly the first business to make it in downtown DeWitt. In recent years alone, the city has added Bridge Street Social, Family Tree Cafe and The Crafted Bean to its lineup.

“Research has shown the more quality restaurants you have, the more people you’re going to have come in,” Leeming said.

Downtown DeWitt. Photo by Riley Murdock.

About 15 years ago, when Leeming first got involved in DeWitt city government, there were many vacant storefronts, she said.

“Probably over 10, which is a lot for our small community of course, and now I don’t think there’s any, with the exception of where we demolished the old gas station, and that one has been purchased,” Leeming said. “They hope to be building starting, I don’t know, just after the new year.”

That new development will become a mixed-use building of at least two floors, featuring both retail and apartments. Several existing DeWitt businesses, including Hometown Pharmacy, have also built new spaces recently.

Leeming said she believes most of the new development has occurred in the last five years. City Administrator Daniel Coss said the city has seen steady, consistent business and residential growth in the past three to four years.

DeWitt’s Downtown Development Authority has been very active in buying and demolishing blighted buildings then returning the property to the private sector for development, Coss said, such as in 2012 when two buildings were demolished then sold to make room for Hometown Pharmacy’s new location.

Coss said the DDA’s goals included creating public parking spaces and streetscape improvements. Over the last six to seven years, the city has built a public parking lot and given away roughly $150,000 in facade improvement grants to local businesses, Coss said. A “Main Street Project” is planned for 2018 which will add decorative street lighting and other downtown improvements.

“It’s just kind of like a snowball effect, you know,” Coss said. “Good things spur other good things to happen.”

An infographic comparing population and area in Bath and DeWitt. By Riley Murdock.

Following the project’s completion, DeWitt’s next step is undetermined. Not because the city is out of ideas, but out of space to expand the downtown.

“We’re kind of fenced in in our downtown, we can’t expand our commercial district in the downtown because it bumps up right against residential,” Coss said. “Now there are a few residential homes that could be purchased and torn down and commercial buildings could be built, (but) I would think the development pressure would have to get a little bit stronger for that to happen, there are still some vacant and commercial opportunities in the township around us.”

Though nothing is planned yet, Coss would not rule out conversations with nearby property owners to purchase unused or underused lots for further downtown development.

Bath

While DeWitt might be running out of room for expansion, Bath might have the opposite problem.

Following the diner’s demise, downtown Bath is home to two eateries —Tommy’s Pizza & Subs and Spagnuolo’s Party Store — the latter of which doubles as a gas station and, according to general manager John Spagnuolo, a hub of information.

“We love our community, and I think in return they love us just as much and they get to know us,” Spagnuolo said. “We just are a part of the community, we’ve been part of the fabric for so long.”

Colloquially known as “Spag’s,” the store has been in business since Spagnuolo’s grandfather owned it in 1976, he said.

“We’re on a pretty first-name basis with a lot of people who come in through here, there’s a lot of regulars,” Spagnuolo said.

Though Spag’s might serve as a small-town staple, Spagnuolo said more businesses in the downtown would mean more foot traffic and would be an overall good for the community.

“Even if a restaurant still did come in here, I still think we would see plenty of faces and I still think we would have similar rapport with our customers who come in here for one reason or another,” Spagnuolo said.

Spagnuolo’s Party Store. Photo by Riley Murdock.

In contrast to DeWitt’s full capacity, Bath Township’s downtown might appear sparse. A sign that reads “business district” leads towards what remains of the diner, flanked by a music store and few others.

Bath resident Lindy Quinnan grew up in DeWitt and moved to Bath with her fiance and his children two years ago. A veteran of both communities, Quinnan would like there to be more businesses in Bath; when she first arrived she even considered opening a dollar store or a thrift store in an open space using money from a car accident settlement.

However, she thinks there might not be much room to expand because of the surrounding residential areas.

Quinnan did not visit Bath often when she was a resident of DeWitt, as she didn’t think there was much to do in the small town.

“In comparison, I would say Bath, there’s like two things that I know of, and DeWitt, I can list multiple businesses that are down there, that have been there for years,” Quinnan said.

However, having fewer businesses isn’t necessarily a bad thing to Quinnan. She said she loves Bath’s quieter, small-town atmosphere, and enjoys going to the Bath Township Library Center and the nearby Eggleston Gallery & Studio with her family.

“I like the ‘low activity’ appeal of Bath,” Quinnan said. “Growing up in DeWitt, yeah it was a small town, but it’s definitely expanding and that’s what I like about Bath. If I have to go a couple blocks away, it’ll take me under a minute sometimes. Now DeWitt, that’s another story… (Bath is) more convenient to me.”

Looks may be deceiving when it comes to Bath’s businesses. Even though the plaza containing Tommy’s Pizza and the Library Center, where Quinnan thought about opening her store — named “Bath Corners” — might appear at first to have a few vacancies, the space is actually full, Shorkey said.

“It looks empty, but last I knew though it isn’t,” Shorkey said. “It’s not retail stuff that’s gonna draw a lot of cars, there’s a few offices in there, there’s an art gallery in there, Bath Township Library (Center) is in there, so I don’t know if there’s any vacancies.”

The sign for the “Bath Corners” plaza. Photo by Riley Murdock.

Rather than concentrating in the downtown, most development in Bath is drawn to Chandler Crossings, a group of neighborhoods on Abbot Road where MSU student housing is popular.
Bath Planning Commission Chair Dan Kramer said growth in Chandler Crossings is much stronger than it is in other parts of the township. A new housing project, Chandler Lofts, had a site plan recently approved through the Planning Commission.

“I think there’s some momentum just because of the student housing that has been there for awhile, and so you’ve already got a population that you can potentially cater to commercially,” Kramer said. “I think from a developer standpoint it’s likely there’s less uncertainty in terms of how those businesses might do.”

Kramer isn’t aware of any upcoming interest by businesses to come in, which would be the Downtown Development Authority’s purview. However, he said an expectation of success would get businesses to move into the downtown, or other incentives.

“The other thing is just momentum, I think,” Kramer said. “It’s a fairly small, sort of sleepy downtown at the moment, but based on other cases that I know of, that can change quite dramatically if a business goes in sort of willing to take a chance.”

A sign welcoming travelers to Chandler Crossings. Photo by Riley Murdock.

The office building across from the old diner is a recent opening, Shorkey said, and he’s received interest from horticultural businesses. However, he hasn’t heard of any new downtown developments and he doesn’t want to speculate.

“Other than Chandler Lofts and three or four different people trying to get horticultural businesses all at the same time, those are the big things right now,” Shorkey said.

While there are no immediate plans, development might be on the horizon for downtown Bath. The Bath Township Downtown Development Authority recently came into a quarter-acre parcel of land, a donation from local business owner James Wisner, Shorkey said. The township is considering assembling properties on the land for marketing purposes.

“The property in the downtown is zoned high-density development and it allows for a variety of main uses, some potentially mixed-use development, commercial office-spaces,” Shorkey said.

“There’s a few other vacant parcels there too, informal conversations with the landowners there have been had in hopes that someday that they might be able to assemble it, but as of right now it’s just a quarter-acre parcel.”

The DDA has a development plan going back to around 2012 that might have some minor updates soon, Shorkey said. The township will soon prepare to update its comprehensive plan in 2019 as well.

“Honestly, there is a need for a dedicated economic development plan for the township, probably going hand-in-hand with a marketing strategy, but we don’t have those at the moment,” Shorkey said.

“Maybe after (2019) we would look at an economic development plan, but I’m gonna be swamped doing a comp plan update.”

Will Bath aim to add to its downtown in the future? For now it’s up in the air, but dominoes might start falling in the next few years.

“We all are sort of looking at the downtown area and wanting to do more with it, and wanting to attract more development there,” Kramer said. “It’s not ignored and there’s certainly a desire to do more there, it’s just because of those conditions … we’re seeing a lot of that development headed elsewhere.”

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