Haslett and Okemos: Same leadership, different communities

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From the outside looking in, an economist might look at Haslett  as a “bedroom community” compared to its neighbor and seemingly-always-growing Okemos. But to Emily Drummelsmith, who grew up in the Haslett area, the two communities are not all that different to her.

And that’s just the way Meridian Township officials want residents of both communities to feel. 

“Honestly I kind of grew up in both so they’re not that different to me truly,” said Drummelsmith, who has been a resident of Haslett for 20 years. “I always spent my time shopping in Okemos and walking around in Haslett. It’s just honestly not different to me.”

Haslett and Okemos are both unincorporated communities governed by Meridian Charter Township. The township provides identical services such as; police and fire protection and water services to the two communities as well as a small part of Williamston Township and East Lansing.

Although they are governed by the same administration, the two communities have separate post office addresses, school districts and census data for statistical reasons.

Okemos is larger in population and in geographic area and according to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010, Okemos had 21,369 citizens and was made up of 16.76 square miles. Haslett had 19,220 citizens and consisted of 15.37  square miles. The median household income in Okemos was  around $16,000 more than Haslett. With Okemos having more wealth and size, it is easy for them to overshadow their sister city.

But comparing the two is kind of like comparing apples to oranges.

“It might have to do with land mass. There are more places for homes in Okemos versus Haslett,”  said Chris Buck,  the Economic Development Director for Meridian Township. “If you talk about it from a business standpoint, they’re more attracted to maybe shop in Okemos because there are more businesses in Okemos.”

The fact that Okemos is the more active community and has more economic prosperity does not surprise Dr. Eric Scorsone, the Director of Michigan State University’s Extension Center for Local Government Finance and Policy.

“I don’t think it’s that Haslett is doing poorly, it’s just that Okemos is larger and more prosperous generally.”

Scorsone mentioned that Haslett is what they call a “bedroom community,” or for a common terminology, a commuter town. In bedroom communities, residents usually work in a different city than the one they live in.

According to an article about bedroom communities, communities like this, tend to have few commercial or industrial activities, and sometimes none at all. Frequently, there will be a few retail business in the community and Haslett fits that stereotype.

In the early 2000s, Haslett had more businesses compared to what they have now.

Janise Packnet

This is a building in Haslett Village Square. The shopping center has a lot of vacant buildings and throughout the center there are open businesses located next to vacant spots.

After the Great Recession, which started in 2007 and ended in 2009, the community’s business district went in a downward spiral. Businesses that started in Haslett migrated to Okemos and vacancies started to appear in one community but disappear in another.

“What we saw happen, is that some businesses that made it through the recession and that were good businesses were able to move to Grand River avenue for less money than they were charging for before,” said Julie Brixie who is Meridian Township’s treasurer. “So a lot of businesses relocated to a higher traffic area.”

According to Scorsone, the recession that occurred in 2007 was the worst America has had in many years. The recession put a crucial dent into several office spaces and retail spaces.

“That [recession] can harm a community,” said Scorsone. “It hurts property value, it lowers their property tax revenues. Local governments are very reliant on a healthy real estate market to keep them going. The recession has had a major impact, but I would argue that the recession plus the other trends [like] certain retailing has combined to cause this problem.

Since Okemos has a larger geographic area and a central location within the township, the community is granted with more space for businesses. The Okemos Road and Jolly Road intersection located by the freeway and all of Grand River Avenue, until it gets into the East Lansing area, are packed with a variety of businesses. The Meridian Mall also has an Okemos mailing address, which helps attract more people to the community.

With Haslett being a smaller community with a small business district, it is easy for people to get the impression that Haslett is the struggling neighborhood in the township. It also does not help to repair that impression when vacant buildings can be located throughout the community.

“It just feels quieter when you are talking about Haslett as a mailing address because so much of Haslett is really a residential community with great parks and a fantastic school district,” said Buck. “So I think you hear the word Okemos more because most of our businesses have an Okemos mailing address.”

Another factor that affected Haslett was a hit to the Haslett Village Square, a

Janise Packnet

Haslett Village Square shopping center located on the corner of Marsh Road and Haslett. Beneath the name there is a very faint sign with the name L&L Food Center, the grocery store that used to be located in the center.

shopping center in the community. It started with the closing of a grocery store that held the center together. After the store closed many other businesses in the center were affected as well.

According to Brixie, the closing of the grocery store was really an inconvenience to the citizens of Haslett. Due to the lack of a grocery store in the area, the citizens have to travel further for groceries and they also lost out on the socialization aspect a grocery store may bring.

“A grocery store which is a fairly large business, obviously you’re losing those jobs. Of course there are people that drive further to get access to food, especially for lower income people that can be quite a burden especially if they don’t have a car,” Scorsone mentioned. “In terms of community…they might lose what we call social capital. So there is sort of a money side and a social side that would be potentially lost.

Not only did Haslett lose a grocery store in their community, but they also lost two of its banks. The PNC bank which was located on Haslett road, was the last bank in Haslett to close in October 2016. At the time of the closing, PNC spokesman Fred Solomon told the Lansing State Journal that less people were visiting branches and using online banking instead. Because of the change, it led the company to consolidate some branches and Haslett was one, while the Okemos branch stayed open.

Losing these resources caused residents to travel outside of their community more often. However, due to the close proximity of the two communities, there are citizens that are not phased by the commute and they believe they are not really losing out on anything.

“It doesn’t bother me that much because they are so close together,” said Paula Smith, who moved to Meridian Township last year and chose to live in Haslett because the property taxes there were cheaper than in Okemos. “If I want to, I could ride my bike down to the Farmers Market, which is really on the line there, it’s not that far.”

Even with the lack of resources, people who live in or work in Haslett still look at the community as a good neighborhood with a good reputation. There are parks in the neighborhood, land preservation and more independent retailers are joining the community.

Good Eats Diva, is a new bakery owned by a Lansing citizen who was previously working out of incubator kitchens in the Lansing area before coming to the neighborhood. The business aims to bring European culture to the area.  

A Biggby Coffee shop also took the place of one of the banks that closed down. Brixie said that the new establishment was good for the community because Biggby is a really popular spot and Haslett did not have one. There was also a nail shop that closed down which resulted in Central Pharmacy to move to the corner of Haslett Road and Marsh Road, which will allow Haslett to go through a transformation period.

“After [Central Pharmacy] moved, the gas station brought an application for a complete teardown, rebuild and transformation of the corner, which we approved earlier this year,” said Brixie. “We are on the cuff of a lot of transformational development going on in Haslett which is really exciting.”

Scorsone believes that in order for Haslett to move forward the community will have to go through a period where they invest in and create more of an identity. He says that when he thinks of Okemos he thinks of the mall, but in terms of Haslett nothing comes to mind.

However, Haslett residents believe their self-identity has already been created. To them, their community consists of a rich school district and a wealthy neighborhood and is an equal to Okemos.

“It’s very family oriented, I actually love living here,” said Smith. “Here people are actually very friendly and they just seem to talk to you more.”

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