Despite appearances, Lansing’s downtown prospects improving

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By Max Johnston
Listen Up Lansing Staff reporter

Washington Street lies one block east of the Michigan State Capitol building in downtown Lansing.

Crammed between the small eateries, boutique shops, and retail office spaces are many empty storefronts plastered with “For Sale” or “For Lease” signs. Mindy Biladeau, executive director of Downtown Lansing Inc. says those vacant properties paints the wrong picture of downtown.

“Just because we have vacant properties doesn’t mean we have this huge vacancy issue,” Biladeau said. “Our vacancy is under 10 percent for our first floor commercial retail in a very large district, and alone 26 businesses opened last year.”

One of many "For Sale" signs decorating downtown Lansing on Malcolm X and Washington Street. Photo taken by Max Johnston

One of many “For Sale” signs in and near downtown Lansing on Malcolm X and Washington Street.
Photo taken by Max Johnston

The numbers indicate that Lansing’s economic prospects are improving. The commercial vacancy rate is below 10 percent, which is lower than Grand Rapids (10.4 percent) and Kalamazoo (18.95 percent) respectively. With a decreasing unemployment rate and an expanding stadium and healthcare district, Michigan State University Urban Studies professor Zenia Kotval says Lansing’s economy shows growth, but its downtown is suffering from an identity crisis.

“The Lansing area is actually diversifying quite nicely, it’s the seat of government, the health industry with Sparrow (Hospital) is dominant, the education sector with Lansing Community College which is a plus, you’ve got the utilities there,” Kotval said. “Downtown is up and coming but it’s needs some branding to settle on an identity.”

Part of that identity problem lies in downtown Lansing’s limited offerings to college-age consumers. Many potential young customers like East Lansing resident Mario Kazelas rarely spend their evenings in downtown Lansing.

“In my 7 years in the states I’ve never gone [to Lansing] to hang out,” Kazelas said. “There’s just a bunch of restaurants and empty buildings.”

Kotval says downtown Lansing needs to diversify in order to draw in more young customers from the surrounding area.

“You have a major university right down the road and lots of young professionals in the area, and the downtown needs to cater more to that,” Kotval said. “The issue is what happens after 5, then you have a different audience. Downtowns succeed when you cater to an 18-hour day.”

Levi Decker, manager of the Jersey Giant Subs on Washington Street, says a lack of downtown business diversity accounts for the high number of vacant properties as well.

“On this block specifically, I’ve heard a lot of feedback that it almost looks like a lot of duplicates to people.” Decker said. “Therefore it’s really cutthroat competition, and a lot of things don’t end up sticking around, and that’s where the vacancies come from.”

Downtown Lansing via Google Maps

Map courtesy of Google

Layna Anderson, the Communications and Marketing Manager of Downtown Lansing Inc. says expanding business diversity is key to drawing more customers downtown.

“There’s definitely a transition in terms of getting a good business mix and what works best for the visitors down here,” Anderson said. “We’re slowly but surely starting to get a more diverse business base, but with such a sizeable lunch crowd we need to expand what we can offer.”

Steven Willobee, Chief Operating Officer of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, says while Lansing is in a period of transition, there’s abundant opportunity that few other places can offer.

“The area’s certainly transitioning, but downtown is thriving right now” Willobee said. “I moved my entire family from Chicago here because it’s a really exciting time in Lansing and now we just need more people to know that.”

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