The Recipe for Thriving Downtowns Part 3: Events

There’s nothing quite like sitting on the roof of El Azteco in the sunshine watching the bustle and fun of the East Lansing Art Festival go on below. Or the Summer Solstice Jazz Series or the Great Lakes Folk Festival. The same goes for the excitement of weaving through the crowds at any number of Old Town events, or sharing the merriment of the holidays with thousands of friends and neighbors at Silver Bells in the City.

Downtown events are fun. They also take a lot of work, and sometimes, a lot of money. So why do they happen? As it turns out, there are a quite a few reasons that downtown development organizations organize events - and the fact that we all think they’re a lot of fun is only one piece of the puzzle.

Building a Happenin’ Image

“[Our events] make our downtown an attraction for this weekend,” says Ami Van Antwerp, Communications Coordinator for the City of East Lansing. “People plan their whole weekend around the festivals - they come downtown, they go into the restaurants, they use our parking system, they go into shops and buy thing.”

Basically, they have a really good time. And the more often visitors have fun in a downtown during a special event, the more likely they’ll be to come back on an average Tuesday in search of another good time.

It’s no coincidence that so many area festivals and events are based around the arts, either. As it turns out, being “artsy” is one of those reputations that bleeds directly into a reputation for being fun. This is evident in both large-scale downtowns, as well as small.

“The approach we’re using is arts and culture as a means of economic development,” says Paul Brake, the Assistant Township Manager for Meridian Township and DDA Executive Director for the area of Meridian Township known as Downtown Okemos. The small downtown just recently held their third Art Walk Festival.
“By making this investment in a relatively affordable events, hopefully that will pay off with additional shoppers coming back to the area,” he says. “We hope this cultural event will attract the kinds of small businesses that will open up shop and help promote that image.”

Building Up Merchants

Small businesses are, after all, the cornerstones of downtowns. Another major reason cities and downtown organizations hold events is to not only attract new businesses, but show off the ones they have. The Downtown Okemos Art Walk, in fact, changed its event format this year to better showcase its merchants.

“Last year the artists fair was in the park,” says Brake, “and this time what we’re doing is bringing all the activities in a closer concentration to downtown.”

The closer the event is to merchants’ front doors, the closer the attendees are to the merchants’ cash registers - and those cash registers are what make a downtown truly hum. Though sales may go up that day, event organizers hope the positive experience creates repeat customers of first time visitors.

“The thing that is almost the biggest not as tangible,” says Van Antwerp. “People may see a store they’ve never seen before, and they may come downtown next weekend to go back. That stuff isn’t as easy to track, but we know that happens.

“Obviously, bringing in thousands of extra people into downtown is going to have the greatest impact on the businesses who make a point to get involved.”

Van Antwerp gives the example of Harper’s and Beggar’s Banquet, who participate in the Summer Solstice Festival by extending their seating outside.

“So they become part of the festival,” she says. “That’s taking an active role.”

Sihan Baladi of Downtown East Lansing’s Silver and Beyond has found her own way of getting involved during events: community outreach.

“These events are wonderful for our downtown,” she says. “It puts emphasis on the fact that we are family oriented. It’s a wonderful community to be a part of, and [events] do bring people to our downtown, and they walk around and they say, ‘I didn’t know you were here.’”

Baladi gives new visitors extra reasons to remember her, particularly during East Lansing’s Winter Bowl holiday event when she gives away treats and gifts to customers and sponsors The Boys and Girls Club Giving Tree.

“The generosity of the people is always amazing to me,” she says. “I have to say to them, ‘You touch my heart so specially.’”

There’s no doubt that Baladi’s generosity touches the hearts of her shoppers, old and new. “I like to play Santa,” she says. Special downtown events give her just the right opportunity to do so.

“And that’s why we do it,” says Van Antwerp. “We want them to succeed.“

Building Up a Budget

The third reason events are an important part of downtown development is to preserve the organizations that work so hard to bring those benefits to their merchants. As much time and money as some events take to pull off, everything from entrance fees to beer tent receipts help to fund the day-to-day operating expenses necessary to keep the downtown development train rolling forward.

As full fledged non-profit, the Old Town Commercial Association is known for raising a great portion of their operating budget with special events. Even DDAs such as East Lansing’s, however, utilize events to stretch their budgets in order to cover extra downtown programming and amenities.

In one case a fundraising event takes place to benefit another that has a big impact on downtown development. The ”JAZZ-tastic Pub Party” takes place at Dublin Square prior to the Summer Summer Solstice Jass Festival, and 10 percent of the proceeds benefit the large event.

“The fundraising event is a win-win for both the festival and Dublin,” says Van Antwerp. “It draws customers to downtown for a special event, while raising the necessary funds to pay for the free-to-the-community Summer Solstice Jazz Festival.”

Events are all about building for downtowns. They build images, merchant patronage, and sometimes budgets. And just like those goals, the best events also build themselves from year to year.

“Our Art Walk is like a neighborhood festival right now,” say Brake. “It’s pretty small scale when you compare it to Old Town or the East Lansing Art Festival. But we’ll get there.”

Natalie Burg is the news editor for Capital Gains.

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Paul Brake with Okemos DDA and the public sculpture “Heat Wave”

Old Town's Blues Fest

Downtown Lansing's Caribbean Festival

Sihan Baladi of Downtown East Lansing’s Silver and Beyond

Common Ground Fest in downtown Lansing

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

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