Creative energy in Old Town is fueling growth for community

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Executive director of the Old Town Commercial Association Austin Ashley poses for a portrait on April 12, 2016 at his favorite spot in Old Town called the fish ladder. Ashley started at OTCA as an intern five years ago and is now the executive director. He is a huge advocate for the arts and plays a very significant role in helping Old Town discover its true strengths and potential.

Executive director of the Old Town Commercial Association Austin Ashley poses for a portrait on April 12, 2016 at his favorite spot in Old Town called the fish ladder. Ashley started at OTCA as an intern five years ago and is now the executive director. He is a huge advocate for the arts and plays a very significant role in helping Old Town discover its true strengths and potential.

By Emily Elconin
Old Town Lansing Times Staff Reporter

From the beginning, the neighborhood of Old Town has been a creative, kooky, and eccentric place that vibrates with a colorful and inviting energy. From the moment you walk down Turner Street, it is evident there is a new chapter being written here in Old Town. There is a story to be shared on every corner.

As Old Town continues to grow, so do the people who are helping Old Town come back stronger than ever before.

Old Town is in the process of planning exciting summer festivals and a new event called Arts Night Out, where four neighborhoods in Lansing including Old Town, East Lansing,REO Town, and Downtown Lansing will feature all different kinds of art to draw in the younger community and help the arts community thrive all over Lansing, beginning in Old Town.

Opportunities are growing for the people of Old Town and whoever visits to share their stories and passion for the arts community.

Austin Ashley, Executive Director of the Old Town Commercial Association located at 1232 Turner St., started as an intern five years ago. Ashley stayed on as a volunteer and worked on different committees. Last year, he was appointed Executive Director.

Ashley has played a significant role in helping Old Town grow and says Old Town is like a phoenix rising from the ashes.

Ashley says he was truly captivated by the community and it drew him in to stay and become a bigger part of making a difference in Old Town.

“We took these buildings, added all these people to the community, added the energy and the art to it and this is what it becomes,” Ashley said with excitement, “Old Town has become this creative community of people that band together to take care of each other and support each other.”

There is a creative energy that is pouring through the veins of Old Town and it’s contagious.

“Twenty years ago, when our organization started, we had a 90 percent vacancy rate. Now we have a 95 percent occupancy rate,” Ashley added.

Ben Rathbun, who serves on the board for the Old Town Commercial Association, the festival planning committees for Festival of the Sun and Moon and Oktoberfest, and is involved with the business development committee, says that he was drawn to the vibrating energy of Old Town and has become a big part in helping it develop.

Rathbun says he came to Old Town about two years ago and was immediately pulled in by the creative, warm, and welcoming energy.

Rathbun also explains how there are no limitations for the expansion of arts and culture in Old Town.

“Besides just galleries, there’s designs firms, publication firms, and communications firms geared towards creating a visual marketing,” Rathbun said.

Rathbun beautifully describes how each place and business in Old Town truly has its own story which makes Old Town feel very genuine when you come visit the neighborhood.

“It’s not a big box store, you can tell that every store has their own unique story and I think that adds to the creative aspect,” Rathbun explained. “It makes it much more welcoming for people to come down here.”

Rathbun and Ashley both explained how the different festivals Old Town puts on are a huge attraction for building the community.

Ashley discussed how the different festivals attract tons of people from outside of Lansing as well as people in Lansing. Old Town is really geared towards a family-oriented supportive community and seeing familiar faces come back to the festivals every year feels like a family reunion, Ashley said.

“Those festivals are designed and bring people down here and together and show people what’s new in Old Town. When you come down here, you notice new things,” Ashley said. “Those events are bringing people down and enjoying the districts. Those festivals are also fundraisers for the nonprofit and account for about 70% of our operating budget.”

Ashley says that Old Town has one of the highest concentrations of creative businesses in the state.

Administrative Assistant & Arts Night Out Coordinator for the Arts Council of Greater Lansing located at 1208 Turner St., Kaitlin Lapka explains how the Arts Council of Greater Lansing is connecting the creative community to the business community and that’s where communities are coming together.

“We’re just trying to make things happen and then allow everyone else to express themselves,” Lapka said.

A photo of the arts district sign located on Turner Street in Old Town. The sign is colorful and placed right in the middle of Old Town as a symbol and reminder that the arts community is alive and thriving in this neighborhood. By: Emily Elconin

A photo of the arts district sign located on Turner Street in Old Town. The sign is colorful and placed right in the middle of Old Town as a symbol and reminder that the arts community is alive and thriving in this neighborhood.
By: Emily Elconin

Old Town has become Old Town because it’s fueled by creativity, nevertheless why it’s called the arts district, Lapka further explained.

“We’re trying to bring down diverse people and people not typically involved with arts, it helps everyone have that opportunity to share their story and put their piece into Old Town,” Lapka said about Old Town’s new event Arts Night Out, “We just hope it will highlight and give each neighborhood a chance to show itself off. Every neighborhood has unique characteristics that’s what makes it so special.”

The Old Town community hopes to attract people who haven’t been to Old Town or haven’t spent a lot of time there. Events like Arts Night Out are a great introduction to see what Old Town is all about.

Lapka says for people who work hard everyday and live in Old Town, watching these evens come to life is a celebration.

An outside photograph of two important places in Old Town - the Arts Council of Greater Lansing and the MICA Gallery who both help organize festivals and plan different events in Old Town that help draw in the community and promote awareness for the arts. By: Emily Elconin

An outside photograph of two important places in Old Town – the Arts Council of Greater Lansing and the MICA Gallery located on Turner Street in Old Town are both key players in helping organize festivals and plan different events in Old Town that help draw in the community and promote awareness for the arts. 
By: Emily Elconin

Ashley explains how putting so much time, sweat, blood, and tears into everything chair holders and stakeholders have put into this community and watching it all come together is really moving.

“Telling your story and being able to be yourself goes right hand and hand with being in a place that’s open and welcoming to anyone to be anyone or anything,” Ashley said, “Identifying with different stories helps people bring a piece of history with them wherever they go. All those pieces start to define individuality.”

The Old Town community is growing together as a community and as a family. The story of Old Town is still being written, and this new chapter for the community is a vibrant and exciting page turner.

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