Old Town Lansing: An Award-Winning Main Street Community

Every industry has its Oscars. Music has the Grammys, marketing has the ADDY Awards - even the Internet honors its finest with the Webby Awards. These are the best-of-the-best contests of each industry. For those outside the loop, the accolades may mean nothing; to those inside they mean everything.

The Great American Main Street Awards (GAMSA) are the Oscars of downtown development in the United States. Every year, thousands of downtown development professionals from across the nation flock to the National Main Street Conference. The event rotates to a new city each year and includes seminars, tours, workshops, forums and more from the national experts.

The highlight of each week, however, is the GAMSAs. They may have fewer sequins and less posh gift bags than the Academy Awards, but the jeans and t-shirt outfitted crowd of downtown development professionals had no lack of enthusiasm in the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines this week. The vibe in the large auditorium was closer to that of a sporting event than a professional conference. To those who don’t believe talk of walkable development and urban planning could inspire a crowd of hundreds to cheers, sign waving and outbursts of giggles, the scene in Des Moines this week would come as quite the surprise. As always, the highlight of this ceremony was the most coveted prize of them all: The Great American Main Street Awards itself.

Each year, a mere five downtowns are acknowledged as the finest in the United States. All 1,300 National Main Street Conference attendees representing downtowns from 47 states waited anxiously to hear the winning communities announced on Monday morning - all of them, no doubt, imagining what it would be like to be in the spotlight; most of them knowing their community has some serious work to do to get there.

For Lansing’s own Old Town Commercial Association, however, those days of wondering and hoping and a lot of hard work have paid off. The entire pack of Michigan attendees applauded, hooted, hollered and smiled as they received the announcement that the OTCA had received the coveted GAMSA.  

“This is really exciting in a lot of ways,” says Brittney Hoszkiw, OTCA Executive Director. “The biggest thing is that one of my jobs is inspiring and empowering the volunteers to do great things. You can only verbalize what an amazing job they’re doing in so many ways. To have the National Main Street Center come in and say you are the best in the nation - that is going to be the best for me.”
Here in Lansing, we may have been bursting with pride about Old Town for years, but recognition on a national scale brings a whole new sense of awareness to the vibrant, historic gem that is nestled on Lansing’s north side.

“Originally, I didn’t realize what a big deal it was,” says OTCA Board President Don McNabb of when he first learned of the GAMSA win. “But this is a great big deal. It’s even bigger because we are a non-profit and volunteer driven. This is the culmination of a lot of effort by a lot of people over many years.”
And there’s no doubt they deserve it.

“Old Town is simply a national model for urban traditional commercial districts,” says Joe Borgstrom, Director of MSHDA’s Downtown & Community Services Division, which houses the Michigan Main Street Center (MMSC).

“They've transformed themselves from boarded up buildings and high crime rates to a vibrant urban district with unique businesses, arts & culture and numerous high quality events.”
Really, the numbers say it all. When the OTCA first began operating under the Main Street Method in 1996, the district had a 90 percent vacancy rate. Today, they are 90 percent occupied.

When this statistic was quoted in Monday’s ceremony, the entire Civic Center of downtown development professionals audibly gasped, then burst into applause. Even among industry insiders, those numbers are striking.

“Last year we had 20 new businesses and 1,300 volunteers and 74 events,” says Hoszkiw. “And everything that we do happened because a volunteer’s hand did the work.”

The Michigan Main Street Center at MSHDA is the state coordinating program that helps member communities like the OTCA ramp up their revitalization methods by leveraging technical assistance, networking and training opportunities.  

“I believe that it’s the volunteers,” says MMSC Coordinator Laura Krizov. “They really make the program. They’re the ones who come up with these ideas - it’s those people who are dedicated to that district who make those things happen.”

What makes Old Town Lansing’s GAMSA win an even bigger source of pride for Michigan in the national downtown development community, is that it represents our second win and fourth GAMSA semi-finalist placement in two years. Another Michigan Main Street community, Boyne City, was a semi-finalist this year. That’s just one year after the Ferndale Downtown Development Authority came home with the top award and the Rochester DDA placed as a semi-finalist.

That’s right: Michigan has been cleaning up in the national accolades for downtown development for the past few years. What gives us such an advantage?

According to some, it’s as simple as good old-fashioned, Midwestern work ethic.
“Other states have heard for the past few years how bad the economy is,” says Borgstrom. “Our communities have been told for the last decade how bad things are here in Michigan, and by and large, [they] have come to respond to that message with, ‘That's nice. Now we've got to get back to work.’”
Without a doubt, once the fanfare and celebration quiets down in Old Town after bringing home such a prestigious award, that will again be the marching orders down on Grand River and Turner. The plucky, bustling OTCA office has played conductor to a powerful train of volunteers for more than a decade now, and the energy generated from this recognition promises to only push them further.

“This is going to be a whole new tool for me to say to our volunteers, you are doing the best you could be doing,” says Hoszkiw. “There are a lot of things we have do in the future, and I hope this can show other communities the power of grassroots participation.”

The OTCA were joined by 2011 GAMSA winners Downtown Beloit Association, Beloit, Wis.; Main Street Fort Pierce, Fort Pierce, Fla.; Downtown Newark Partnership, Newark, Del.; and Silver City MainStreet Project, Silver City, N.M. An “Old Town Reunion Party” will soon be organized by the OTCA to celebrate their win with the community and OTCA volunteers, present and past.  

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


Signage for Old Town

Flowering tree lined streets

Brittney Hoszkiw, OTCA Executive Director , Laura Krizov of Michigan Main Street Center at MSDHA and Don McNabb, OTCA President at the Great American Main Street Awards (Courtesy photo)

Lighthouse Massage and Hilltop Yoga

Love Betti

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie (unless noted)

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