Dennel Ballard stands in front of Family Barber Shop II. Ballard is concerned about the vision for the city’s future. (Photo: Monica Reida)
By Monica Reida, Staff Writer
The downtown area of DeWitt could come from a postcard with the Sweetie-licious Pastry shop, multiple barber shops and a pharmacy that is named DeWitt Pharmacy. The sole stop light that sits in the downtown area is at Bridge and Main.
But while the downtown looks ideal, there are storefronts that are sitting empty and very few people who are walking around the area on a relatively nice Saturday afternoon. To some DeWitt residents, the lack of businesses in the heart of their city poses a problem.
Dennel Ballard sits in Family Barber Shop II at 113 W. Main St. as she awaits her next haircut appointment. Ballard works in the barber shop as a hairstylist and has served on the DeWitt City Planning Commission.
Ballard who has lived in DeWitt since 1982, says the people who are moving to DeWitt are failing to remember that it is a small town.
“We have our own identity and I think that sometimes that people forget that,” Ballard said.
The downtown area of DeWitt is the core of its small town identity but Ballard is worried about the state of the downtown area.
Ballard said while there is a Meijer out in DeWitt Township, the store takes away from the identity of the city of DeWitt.
John Coscarelli, owner and founder of Relli’s Italian Restaurant, said the downtown area hasn’t really changed since he opened Relli’s in 1996 other than for a few office buildings and condos by the river.
The DeWitt YMCA sits in the DeWitt Shopping Center, a hub of businesses far from the downtown area. (Photo: Monica Reida)
As far as business to help grow the downtown area, Ballard said complementary businesses–such as another gift shop near Twiggie’s–would help the area. According to Ballard the subject of ways to attract more businesses to Downtown DeWitt has been discussed by the city council in the past but there appears to be little progress in finding solutions.
Daniel Coss, city administrator for DeWitt, said the city and the downtown development authority are a part of Lansing Area Economic Partnership, which is used for attracting and retaining businesses. Additionally the city tries other ways to keep businesses downtown. He said the downtown is beautified “because this is a commercial district and commercial businesses have more of a tendency to come and go.
Relli’s owner Coscarelli said, “It’s never been the most stable of economies over here.”
On the outskirts of town sits the DeWitt Shopping Center which features a Rite Aid Pharmacy, Biggby Coffee and the DeWitt YMCA. There’s also a bakery, named Whipped, and a bicycle shop, Bikeworks. The bicycle shop has been open since March 2010.
Bikeworks owner, Jon Vandecar, had looked at putting his store in Downtown DeWitt, but decided to have his shop located in the shopping center.
“The foot traffic is ridiculously higher than it is downtown,” Vandecar said.
Although Vandecar liked the idea of placing Bikeworks in a storefront downtown, he realized what was more important was selling bicycles. He does not regret placing his store in the DeWitt Shopping Center.
According to Coss, DeWitt has events such as the Farmers Market and Ox Roast Festival to draw visitors to the downtown area.
The city has tried to spruce up the downtown area by installing bike paths and pedestrian walkways in the downtown area. Coss said that the city will be installing 2500 feet of new sidewalk on North Bridge Street in the spring. The city has also been instrumental in acquiring land, including parcels for the new DeWitt Pharmacy building.
Children’s bikes for sale at Bikeworks, a store in the DeWitt Shopping Center. Store owner, Jon Vandecar prefers the business opportunities at this location to a downtown site. (Photo: Monica Reida)
According to Ballard, the city has been looking into creating an incubator space to encourage new businesses in the city. Coss said this concept isn’t a physical space the city is looking at to help get a business started but a program to kick start a business. The program might involve the DDA funding the start of the business and cover a portion of the monthly rent where the business would locate.
Coss said the “virtual incubator” idea was something that they saw in Kalamzoo. No decisions have been made by the city on what they would do with the incubator, but it is being considered at the city level.
How DeWitt will attract new businesses is something that will unroll slowly, but as more people move to DeWitt there could be tensions about the future growth of the city.