Small businesses persevere to support downtown district

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Dawn-Marie Joseph’s daughter hangs a “shop small” banner outside of Vivee’s Floral Garden & Cafe. 28 Nov. 2015.

By Megan Cochrane
The Williamston Post

For decades, the birth and growth of small businesses has kept Williamston’s downtown alive, but they continue to encounter challenges.

“I think Williamston now has more small businesses than they ever had,” said Barb Vandenberg, former chamber of commerce president and downtown development authority chair. There are more large chain businesses in town than in the past, but small businesses are a crucial element of Williamston’s economy.

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Number of small businesses in Williamston.

A business owner herself and 24-year resident of Williamston, Vandenberg has seen the town go through many changes. Along the rollercoaster track that is the small business sector, Williamston business owners continuously strive to bring the community together and add value to the unique town.
As Vandenberg said, “If you don’t have businesses in a town, you don’t have a town.”

Historical Context
Williamston began as a small agricultural town founded by three brothers, according to the town history as told on the Williamston Area Chamber of Commerce website. The area saw the success of a sawmill and then a gristmill before blossoming into a livelier town with the coming of the railroad in 1871.

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Breakdown of Williamston businesses by employee number.

However, the town had to find a new purpose when the mills closed and the train stopped running. Purpose was found through retail. Downtown features buildings and stores from the 19th century that house modern shops and small businesses, giving residents and visitors of Williamston a unique combination of small-town charm and modern conveniences. The town’s slogan, “discover the charm,” speaks to its small-town friendliness.

As rural life continues to fade throughout the United States, Williamston has been able to serve as a suburb of Michigan’s capital city, Lansing, while maintaining its small-town charm.

A Modern Williamston
Through the years, the town has seen businesses come and go. But, one of the toughest periods occurred during the recent economic recession.

“It had an effect on all the businesses,” said Vandenberg. As the economy started changing, small business owners had to adapt and adjust. The debate between wants versus needs primarily affected Williamston retail businesses. People weren’t buying things they didn’t need, said Vandenberg.

Despite the struggle, Vandenberg said, “Williamston survived the economy pretty well.” Since then, the town has recovered, but businesses seem to face new challenges.

Williamston’s downtown storefronts remain occupied, sometimes changing hands to bring a new service or retail shop to town. However, several business owners and residents say that it is difficult to get people to come to Williamston and spend the time to shop and support the town.

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Mark Leigh’s store front and sidewalk were decked out in blue and white to attract shoppers looking to support small businesses. 28 Nov. 2015.

Jamie Cripe, owner of Plush Consignments, said, “Downtown Williamston is made up of so many small businesses. (But) trying to get people to come out here is hard as it is… being so far removed from Lansing.”

Mark Leigh, owner of Suburban Antiquarian and an eight-year resident of Williamston, said he agrees that it is difficult to get people to come to Williamston because people get comfortable with their immediate area and larger chain stores.

“Small businesses are competing against (corporate stores) for people’s time. It’s not just about their money, it’s the time to actually come and walk around a small town and explore,” Leigh said. “We need to get people to explore a little more.”

Small Business Saturday
Now a nationally recognized holiday, Small Business Saturday was originally a movement started by American Express in 2010 to encourage the public to “shop small” and to support local businesses, as stated on the platform’s website. Since then, the movement has spread across the country, even to Williamston.

On Saturday, Nov. 28, many local businesses participated in the Shop Small campaign, hanging posters, banners, signs, balloons and placing doormats throughout the downtown area, creating a sea of blue and white to promote the day.

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Vivee’s Floral Garden & Cafe decorated more than the interior of their shop for the campaign. 28 Nov. 2015.

“Small Business Saturday is a good thing for us, I think, as a community,“ said Cripe, who helped organize the event with several storeowners. “It’s the one day out of the year where you can really get people to try and shop small… and really, I guess, rally the community.”

Dawn-Marie Joseph, who owns several local businesses in the Williamston area, said the movement is a neat idea and that each year it gets better and better.

“It gives exposure,” said Joseph.

Joseph also said the day creates a positive effect in the community. She said even if people don’t buy anything on Small Business Saturday, they might see the movie theatre or a restaurant and come back another time. That return visit, she stressed, will help the community.

Dr. Linda Covey, a 35-year resident of Williamston, participated in the campaign this year.

When asked why she decided to shop small, Covey said, “Well we’ve lived in Williamston for a long long time … Some of these folks we’ve known forever. So, we like to support them. And, it’s important. It’s important to keep the business here in town, if we can. “

Vandenberg said that the “shop small” initiative is huge because it brings awareness to the town and surrounding communities.

While Joseph said she definitely sees an increase in foot traffic over the holiday, there seems to be some variation between years.

Leigh said business varies wildly from day to day in this town.

“It’s the nature of the business,” said Leigh.

Vandenberg said she hopes Williamston’s business district continues to grow and hopes the community will continue to support the downtown area, which is an essential part of the community and the town’s character.

“People don’t really realize, especially the residents of some towns like this, that if they don’t support their downtown business district, it dies,” Leigh said. “You can’t sustain a business district with services. You have to have retail.”

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