In a time when people tend to keep to themselves and neighbors helping neighbors can be a foreign concept, the Battle Creek neighborhood of Urbandale is bucking that trend.
Located west of downtown Battle Creek, this neighborhood of fewer than 5,000 residents is like a small city unto itself with longtime-established restaurants, shops, and businesses owned by people who take pride in the community they have created together.
One of the more recent entrants into the Urbandale business community is a young woman who was born and raised in Battle Creek but never expected to return after leaving for college and her ensuing several year as a resident of Grand Blanc.
“We lived in Bedford for a bit and Athens,” says Elisha Hodge, owner of Plumeria Botanical Boutique
. “I didn’t have a great high school experience and I never thought I would come back.”
Hodge graduated from Central Michigan University and took a job in banking and later in financial advising. She had a good job, a dog, and a home in Grand Blanc, but realized she wasn’t happy with what she was doing.
“I had this heart and this spirit, but the world kind of steps on you at times and I learned to be quiet,” Hodge says. A telephone call to her mother in Battle Creek set her life on a course she never expected to follow.
“I was calling my mother and she said you should come home,” Hodge says. “My mom, my two sisters, their two families, and the rest of my family lives in Battle Creek. I don’t have a relative outside of Battle Creek. For years they were asking me to come back.”
Hodge’s mother, Sandy, had worked for more than 30 years at the Country Bouquet Flower Shop located on West Michigan Avenue in Urbandale. The owner of the flower shop was planning to sell the business and at her mother’s urging, Elisha decided to throw caution to the wind. She put her house in Grand Blanc on the market.
“My mom said I could take my banking background and her florist background and we could buy this business,” Hodge says. “When she mentioned it, I don’t know if any of us thought she was serious.”
However, when Hodge’s Grand Blanc home sold in two weeks, she took it as a sign and moved back in June 2015 to embark on a new career as a business owner. She lived that summer in her sister’s basement and interned at the flower shop, putting her energy into learning about everything from how to order flowers, to arranging, to delivering.
“I made a business plan and researched the market and did what I could to see if I could make this work,” Hodge says. “Over Labor Day my family came in and we cleaned and painted and rehabbed the whole place and on September 15 we opened as Plumeria Botanical Boutique.”
She says what happened even before her shop opened, validated her decision to move home and is very emblematic of the close-knit ties that are routinely found in Urbandale.
Her very first impression of the way in which residents and neighborhood business owners look out for each other was when the now-late Frank Zanetti, co-owner of Battle Creek Tile & Mosaic in Urbandale, walked into her shop, introduced himself and ordered flower arrangements for family members, women at his church, and Bedford Manor.
There are many items in addition to flowers for sale at Plumeria.
Hodge says she remembers thinking, “How do you trust that I’m going to be able to do this?” in response to Zanetti’s orders. She says this was her first exposure to the pervasive “We are here to help each other” mentality that runs throughout Urbandale.
Zanetti not only made Hodge his go-to florist but also encouraged other business owners to do business with her. “The business owners in this area understand how important it is to keep our money here in the community,” Hodge says.
When she took ownership, the shop was under contract with 1-800-Flowers and FTD. She worked for two years to get out of those contracts because she says they were siphoning money from customers and the shop and the money was not staying local. Although she had concerns about how she could compete with well-established florists in the city, she took a proactive approach and joined the Chamber of Commerce. She continues to network with business owners, and keep on top of trends in the florist industry.
Fred Bachman, owner of Bachman Hebble Funeral Home in Urbandale says Hodge is very energetic and has become very involved in the community through her participation in the annual Fall Festival, the Urbandale Level Park Area Business Association, and other activities and organizations.
Like Hodge, Bachman was born and raised in Battle Creek. After high school, he planned to pursue a career as a physician and attended the University of Colorado, but a Chemistry class did him in and his father suggested a focus on Elementary Education. He taught school and worked at funeral homes in Colorado before in 1975 to work on and earn a Mortuary Science degree.
Five years later he moved back to Battle Creek and joined his dad in the family business. “Coming back, you know a lot of people, having grown up in the area. I was making a lot of nice contacts with people in Colorado,” Bachman says, “but getting back in touch with all of the people I knew -- like the different babysitters that my folks had for my sister and I -- was special because they trusted us and we’ve taken care of them.”
The funeral home owned by Bachman’s father relocated to Urbandale from downtown Battle Creek in 1988 after the city wanted to build the Cereal City Museum on the corner of West Michigan Avenue and Carlisle Street. That gave Bachman and his family the opportunity to relocate to a 375-acre space in Urbandale that has proven to be the right place for them and their business.
“It’s a peaceful neighborhood in a residential area and we had green grass and birds and rabbits,” Bachman says. “It felt like you were in an area where if people looked outside it could distract them which is important because they are here under difficult circumstances.”
That trust has gone beyond customers to other Urbandale business owners who Bachman has formed deep connections and friendships with over the years. This has led to collaborations designed to both benefit the neighborhood’s profile and elevate it.
Churches, restaurants, and businesses, including Plumeria, have banded together on efforts like a sweater drive organized by Bachman, the Fall Festival, and an annual Pancake Supper.
Longtime Urbandale resident Patricia Graw, who is a self-described cheerleader and one-woman Welcome Wagon, says there was a great turnout this year for the Fall Festival that included a number of people from outside of Urbandale. A fourth-generation Urbandale resident, Graw says the neighborhood is fortunate to have established businesses because they serve as examples of what is possible for newer entrepreneurs like Hodge.
“It makes me feel very excited and hopeful because Urbandale has lost its share of businesses over the years, but as soon as I saw that Elisha had opened her business I went in and told her about our Neighborhood Planning Council and welcomed her,” Graw says. “We have empty buildings, but there’s a lot of talk about new businesses coming in. We’re never going to be like Lakeview, but I think we’ll get it back.”
Bachman, who is a member of Urbandale’s Neighborhood Planning Council, says he thinks a lot of businesses could benefit from locating in his neighborhood.
“Many times, I don’t think we’re on the radar. When you’re looking at movie theaters, fast food, or a mall, that’s south of town on Beckley Road,” he says. “The presence of Urbandale represents stability. It says something that you’re here and that you’re going to stay here and provide the best care possible to clients who call on you whether it be for flowers, funeral services, or hot dogs.”
It is that personalized service that Hodge believes is critical to the continued success of businesses like hers. She says she has been able to help other entrepreneurs in the area by purchasing their products to stock the shelves in her store which include honey, soaps, candles, greeting cards, inspirational items, and pink-feathered flamingoes.
Her willingness to work with others, including community residents, led to the hiring of a young man and woman who now make deliveries for her.
“A neighbor across the street asked if he could take my garbage out or make deliveries. The house he lived in is across the streets from me and he said he didn’t want to be at home because there were some things going on. From there he introduced me to his girlfriend who has a car and a driver’s license and they’re delivering flowers for me,” Hodge says.
A basket of candy, wine, cheese and more might be the perfect holiday gift. Photo by Erik McCloud
She was on the other end of this kind of helpfulness when Plumeria first opened and she remembers the kindness of a neighbor who saw her and her significant other working outside on a hot day and brought them bottled water. She says these opportunities to perform random acts of kindness can be found anywhere, the key is to look for them and act on it.
“If I saw somebody going through the garbage in my dumpster I'm going to ask why they’re doing that and what they need and what they want,” Hodge says. “If it’s the guy who walks by cursing, I will ask him if he needs a water bottle or coffee and I’d invite him in because I want him to know that this is a safe and warm and loving place.
“It’s all about communication. You see someone who may not look like he or she could be very approachable, but if you have a conversation with them, you may find out that they are.”
At the risk of sounding cliche, Hodge says she wants to be that positive first impression and to offer that smile that somebody may need.
As she stood behind the counter inside the shop, Sandy Hodge says Plumeria is built on her daughter’s personality and that’s what keeps customers coming in.
Elisha Hodge says she likes the idea that she's able to help people celebrate milestones like engagements, marriages, and the births of children. She says she drives herself harder because she knows this is what it will take to continue to grow her business.
“When it’s family or independently-owned you do what you have to to make sure that it’s done right, like making a delivery further out than you want to pay your driver,” she says. “When I’m sweeping the floors at 11 o’clock at night, I know it’s good because we’re still here.”