Leaders of Williamston said the city is rebounding from the setbacks of COVID-19 evident in employment vacancies, but would like to see more housing developments.
“Our biggest employer is the school district. They’re struggling to find candidates that are even looking to apply. Other smaller businesses are having difficulties just like any other community,” said Rachel Piner, city treasurer, who has been juggling the books for Williamston and its Tax Income and Finance Authority and Economic Development Corporation boards for the past eight years.
Ken Szymusiak, a resident of Williamston and treasurer for the EDC and TIFA said Williamston’s economy faces challenges due to limited housing. The desire to live in Williamston is well sought after, because “when housing does hit the market, it’s rare, and they sell in days,” he said, adding this is a telling indicator of economic growth.
On a similar front, Piner said, “The economy of Williamston is coming back.”
Piner said the community shows they need those businesses and want for them to thrive.
Szymusiak has seen a struggle to hire staff considering larger employers can recruit from a larger pool of candidates across Greater Lansing. “Just driving through town I notice a lot of “we’re hiring signs,” he said.
EDC and TIFA Chair Peter Porciello, said creating jobs is important but thinks “The bigger thing is can we sustain the jobs we create? Will we keep them there? Are they jobs that people are going to want to move here to take, are they going to want to raise families earning those incomes with those professions, are we going to attract people to give us a diverse culture?” He said fears that the jobs won’t meet the quota for specific demographics and family dynamics.
As of 2022, the census reports 3.959 residents occupy the city of Williamston across 1,685 households. According to Data USA, between the years of 2018 to 2019 employment in Williamston declined by almost 3.5% to a little over 2,000 employees prior to COVID.
A project involving TIFA is repurposing the functioning plans for a property that those who will own it will generate jobs benefiting locals seeking work.
Industrial Park, owned by TIFA, controls when real estate gets sold and to whom.
Piner said TIFA just finished a critical infrastructure project on Elevator Street to get running water under the railroad track flowing to businesses in need of that water source.
Upgrades to a walking area downtown near the river were made possible via a grant TIFA applied for from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
“We actually loaned the DDA match money so they could apply for grant funds to rebuild the park. It’s more accessible, it’s safer. It helps to connect people to the downtown,” said Porciello.
Plans/growth in Williamston
Porciello says Williamston has transitioned from sole proprietor businesses to niche markets such as clock specialties. The city now hosts several new restaurants, a kitchen remodeling spot, a florist, a professional theater, a hardware store, retail locations, barbers and beauty shops, tax and mortgage services and more.
Porciello said the past being “… pretty much come to town and shop for antiques and if you’re lucky there was a McDonald’s, there’s more than that now.”
“The city limit is fixed and most of the city is built except downtown to the highway so that’s where the economic development will come…somehow they need to do something to mitigate if it’s all business versus if it’s all housing because they need to try to manage the tax base of the new places coming. We have high taxes. People will stop coming here because we don’t have the amenities that would appeal to them.” said Porciello.
Backbone of Williamston
“Williamstown Township has different growth priorities, they’re really big on protecting farms which has its positives. Yet because of their approach to development there aren’t large plots of land to do big subdivisions. So when houses are built they’re typically built in ones and twos,” said Szymusiak.
Szymusiak said an anti-growth perspective doesn’t work because population growth could present benefits in long term economic growth.
“When I came here it was pretty much an antique town and then all of a sudden there were all these empty storefronts because that industry died out. We did not have opportunities for people to get jobs in the city. We were literally a bedroom community for East Lansing, Lansing or maybe Howell, places that were nearby,” Porciello said.
There are now more restaurants, service industries, and more opportunities for people to walk past open storefronts.
Improvements like these were deal breakers for Szymusiak’s family decision to make Williamston home just six years ago.
“We really enjoy it. It’s a great hometown.” said Szymusiak.