By Merinda Valley
Meridian Times staff writer
OKEMOS — With Meridian Township’s approval of the Douglas J brownfield plan and demolition on the corner of Okemos and Hamilton roads scheduled to begin in March, downtown Okemos is changing shape.
But what about the cow?
The thin barnyard animal made of forged and fabricated steel has stood in front of the former Travelers Club since May of last year. Spaces in its metal silhouette provide a view of the traffic and storefronts surrounding it.
“I picked the cow because it’s a Holstein cow, and the pattern on a Holstein cow has a lot of black and white space. I like the lightness of it,” said artist Mike Sohikian.
Though the sculpture’s title, “Vaca,” has little meaning — the word is Spanish for “cow” — the idea behind this piece and the other art decorating downtown Okemos is significant.
To boost property values and encourage community art, the Meridian Township Downtown Development Authority cooperated with the Midwest Sculpture Initiative in 2009. Peter Menser, associate planner for Meridian Township, said the program allowed the township to lease pieces of artwork like “Vaca,” and display them in Okemos for one year.
“The idea is to create more of a sense of place,” said Will White, owner of White Bros. Music and board member of the DDA. “We’re hoping to create a sculpture garden with more benches for people to sit at. It’s all part of the goal to make it a center of arts and culture,” he said of Okemos.
Some believe the sculptures are fulfilling their purpose.
“We’re having a positive impact,” said founder of Midwest Sculpture Initiative Kenneth Thompson. “It’s benefiting the communities that we work with, they are repeat customers, and every year we get more. They’re obviously seeing a benefit to their communities, that’s why they continue to do it.”
The DDA participated in the Midwest Sculpture Initiative for four consecutive years, but the trend will not continue in 2013, according to Menser.
“We face some financial hardships in terms of funding,” Menser said. “Meijer is down there (in Okemos) and they are like 70 percent of our tax collection, and they appealed their taxes so we actually have to pay quite a bit of money back…”
This requirement for reimbursement came from a tax tribunal that ruled in favor of Meijer. In its case, Meijer asserted that property taxes imposed on it by Meridian Township from 2010 to 2012 were too high.
Because the township cannot afford the $6,500 fee associated with the sculpture-lending program, the new Douglas J salon is the only piece of artwork expected to appear near the Four Corners in the next year.
Lee Romer owner of the Okemos business Bottoms Up said the absence of the cow sculpture will not affect the area significantly.
“The cow will go home to its barn, we have no choice about it,” said Romer.
Lansing resident Yolanda Jackson, who frequents the Okemos area for shopping and her daughter’s karate lessons, said she has enjoyed viewing the public art.
“It gets the kids thinking that they can do anything, make anything they want and put them on display. To me, it’s like a freedom of speech…”
Although there isn’t a scientific scale for measuring the sculptures’ impact, Menser said he hopes Okemos’s relations with the Midwest Sculpture Initiative will be revived.
“Art is one of those nebulous things that’s kind of hard to put into dollars and cents. I think it’s beyond argument that art leads to artistic and culture endeavors and all those things.” Menser said. “In any activities related to the arts, you get arts there and people spend money, businesses prosper, people invest in the community. It’s part of the bigger picture.”