Downtown Shopping District looks to revitalize St. Johns

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By Katie Winkler
Clinton County Chatter staff reporter

ST. JOHNS — Along the downtown strip in the city of St. Johns, there are seven businesses that have closed — not counting those on side streets. Some were due to a lack of customers and personal issues, or location change. Nevertheless, St. Johns Downtown Shopping District is looking to expand its commercial shops on North Clinton Avenue.

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Map shows closed businesses in St. Johns downtown shopping district.

Some of the shops that once occupied these empty buildings included Burlington Sofa & Mattress Factory, European Traditions, a restaurant called The Mint, Fountain Homemade Candy and St. Johns Soy Candles & Crafts.

“There are many different reasons businesses might close, including insufficient revenue, death or retirement of the owner, or disaster like fire or flood,” said assistant professor at Michigan State University and expert in urban sociology, cities and economic development, Zachary Neal. “Large businesses may have the resources to recover from these sorts of events, but small businesses often do not.”

Executive Director of the Downtown Shopping District, Dan Redman, said that, for example, a downtown bakery named Carcellos, closed a few years ago due to personal issues. When one of the owners was going through a divorce, the other could keep the bakery running alone.

Many downtown areas offer shops that are not necessary for their customers. Neal said businesses that focus on satisfying regular, localized needs, like food and fuel, in small areas can ensure some demand, which is critical for the survival of the business.

Gill-Roy’s Hardware has been in downtown for over 30 years. Manager Edward Brandon said that downtown shops need to cater to their customer’s specific needs.

“You have to be able to change for what is being asked of you,” Brandon said. “If you keep changing your business to conform to your customers wants, you will stay in business — that’s what we do.”

Local businesses suffer when they are forced to compete with superstores, Redman said.

Gill-Roy’s separates themselves from the local Walmart by waiting on every customer that comes in the store.

A lack of business is not uncommon in downtown areas of small cities. St. Johns Community Development Director and Deputy City Manager Dave Kudwa said downtowns, in general, have been suffering for about the last 25 years.

“They used to be the center of commercial and retail sales and development in downtown, especially rural downtown,” he said. “We understand that a business may just come in for three to five years. The question is, how do we develop these spaces and work with the property where they can come and start a business.”

Redman, and the rest of the downtown shopping district, have come up with incentives to drive business and interest for the downtown area.

A total of roughly $1,500 would be given to starting businesses to supplement the start up of their commercial establishment — $500 towards the first months rent, $500 for marketing and $500 after the twelfth months rent.

This is a never-ending function, according to Redman. Shopping centers, whether it is downtown or a shopping plaza’s, are constantly looking for businesses to fill space.

As local shoppers, St. Johns residents Jeff and Linda Cardinal would like to see a steakhouse, theatre, a bakery and more restaurants.

In addition to driving commercial business on North Clinton Avenue, Kudwa said the community plans to build 14 to 20 new residential units for the floors above the ground level businesses. A possible senior development center may be coming to the downtown area, as well.

“There is interest in residential so you can walk down and go to the Rail Trail, Senior Center, restaurants,” he said. “It is a combination of residential, retail and commercial development.”

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