Old Town: Now a thriving community despite a rough past

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By Sergio Martínez-Beltrán
Old Town Lansing Times reporter

When Aura Ozbourne decided she was going to open a shop in Old Town, she knew it was a risk. Everyone knew.

“When I first opened up, (Old Town) was extremely dilapidated and unloved for the most part,” Ozburn said. “Many people were afraid of the neighborhood.”

When Ozbourne opened her store October Moon in 119 E Grand River Ave. 14 years ago, the situation was not the best one, however, it was not the worst.

Historical Society of Greater Lansing President Valerie Marvin said Old Town Lansing was one of the roughest neighborhoods in Lansing.

“Known as North Lansing, people who grew up there and lived there made t-shirts that said ‘North Lansing Against the World,’” Marvin said. “They almost saw themselves as a separate community.”

Marvin said there were some well-known bars where fights were the norm — the neighborhood also witnessed some murders.

“There were many African -mericans, a Latino community and there was some industry but it was not a pleasant place for many people,” Marvin said. “It was relatively poor and it was also somewhat dangerous.”

But in the 1980s and 1990s the community started changing.

“There was a decline, a lot of concerns from the neighborhood about criminal activity and soon they were very determined to turn it around,” Marvin said. “There were a couple of people who moved in and started to buy real estate.”

With businesses coming in, Old Town started attracting more people.

“It became a trendy place, a very successful area and continued to diversify,” Marvin said. “It became home to a large LGBT community … it was a combination of outside investment and a lot of determination by their locals.”

Small businesses as catalysts of change

One of the first companies to settle in Old Town, even when it was a disadvantaged community, was MessageMakers.

This company owned by Terry Terry, is a full-service production company, located at 1217 Turner St., creates videos, produces live events and design websites.

“In the early 1980s, (Old Town) was probably less than one percent occupied, and at that time, Terry Terry came to Old Town and bought a building here,” Linda Burnham, Terry’s assistant, said.

Terry also took a risk in Old Town Lansing that was worth it — the company has been in business for 38 years and currently has 10 employees.

“Old Town is really a success story and the people that live there are so proud of it — residents, business owners,” Marvin said. “It’s one of the most vibrant communities within Lansing today.”

Small business owners have played a key role in the development of Old Town Lansing. These businesses, in comparison to big corporations, not only create an impact in the economy of the neighborhood, but also in the dynamic of it, Ryan Kauth, director of the Wisconsin Small Business Development Center at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, said.

The advantages of having small businesses in a community are many.

“In small businesses, most of the decisions are made by the owner and small businesses compared to larger corporations often give larger flexibility with customers,” Kauth said. “Customers facing the employer might be more empowered or could have answers.”

Kauth said small businesses often face bigger challenges than corporations — the cost of licenses in a city and regulations could be a hindrance for the owners.

However, Kauth said it is not unusual to see small businesses in the frontline when rehabilitating a neighborhood.

“There are a lot of entrepreneurs that like the fact that they are going into a disadvantaged community because, even though there might be some regulations, they don’t mind the fact that they can change (the neighborhood) and create jobs,” Kauth said.

The culture of small businesses is also different, he said.

“If you look at small business owners they really care about their employees, and they want their employees to be healthy,” Kauth said. “An advantage of working on a small business is that you are not a number, you are a person.”

Old Town: the oldest part of Lansing

The story of Old Town Lansing is one that goes back to the 1800s.

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“We call it Old Town because it is the oldest part of Lansing,” Old Town Commercial Association Executive Director Austin Ashley said. “It was settled in 1825 where Grand River Avenue is now … and James Seymour… was the first settler in Lansing and he settled in Old Town.”

But Old Town Lansing was mainly hit by an important decline of development in the 1960s, Ashley said.

“The biggest decline was in the 1960s when a lot of people where trying to move into the suburbs,” Ashley said. “People were trying to move out of the urban areas and move into suburbia.”

And just in 20 years, Ashley said, things have changed monumentally.

“Twenty years ago, Old Town had a 90 percent vacancy rate,” Ashley said. “Now it has over 95 percent occupancy rate — the community is really working to change that persona of Old Town, willing to take a chance on it.”

The beginning of the commercial association

Old Town Lansing gives you a feeling of a small neighborhood once you start walking on its streets. There are flowers around, art, historic buildings and stores that serve a niche audience.

All of the aforementioned things exist thanks, in part, to the Old Town Commercial Association.

“Since 1996 the commercial association has been established and we’ve been part of the Michigan Main Street Program since 2006,” Ashley, who became the association’s executive director in May 2015, said.

The Old Town Commercial Association has four committees — design, promotions, economic restructuring and organization. The members on each committee have a business or work for a business in Old Town Lansing, Ashley said.

Jamie Schriner-Hooper served as the association’s executive director from 2004-2009, and said she fell in love with Old Town Lansing right away.

“I bought my first house near Old Town,” Schriner-Hooper said. “I loved the old buildings, great festivals and the people.”

Schriner-Hooper noted that out of the many successes the community has had, one of the biggest one for her is that people work together to make it a great place and that it is now known for their events and small businesses.

And Schriner-Hooper does not foresee any decrease in the developmental capabilities of the neighborhood.

“I see it continuing its revitalization and spreading out into surrounding neighborhoods,” Schriner-Hooper said. “The vast majority of the buildings in the heart of Old Town have already been rehabbed and have businesses … that success is starting to spread to the surrounding neighborhoods and make even stronger connections to other commercial districts within Lansing.”

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