The Recipe for Thriving Downtowns Part 1: Volunteerism


It’s easy to love Old Town. And for the past few years, it’s been easy to love Downtown Lansing too. Even REO Town has been getting easier and easier to love recently.

But what about Old Town in 1996? How easy was Downtown Lansing to love a decade back, or REO Town? All three of Lansing’s primary downtown districts have one thing in common: at some point in recent history, they left a lot to be desired.

“When we first got here, it was a little scary,” says Old Town Commercial Association Board Member David Such of Such Video’s move to Old Town. “People would ask us, ‘Is it safe?’”

But no Lansingite worth his Lugnuts season tickets could have failed to notice the transformation that has happened in Old Town - as well as the similar historic commercial centers of Downtown Lansing and REO Town - over the past several years.

So what happened? Where did the love come from? Did the OTCA’s outdoor festivals suddenly make merchants flock to a barren business district? Did Downtown Lansing Inc.’s (DLI) cute, urban logo inspire nightlife businesses to populate Washington Square overnight?

Apparently, it’s a little more complicated than that. Though a blend of capitalism and culture led Americans to trek toward strip malls and suburban living in the 1960s, the recipe for Lansing’s migration back to these city centers includes those incidental elements, plus a few more deliberate ones: volunteerism, economic development tools, events and promotions, and solid, funded organizations tasked with prodding these efforts along.

This is the first of a four-part series on how downtown revitalization efforts have been impacting the Greater Lansing region. We’ll look at each of these ingredients to see who’s using them, how they’re working and what it means for Lansingites from Williamston to Grand Ledge.

Volunteerism

Who would volunteer to help a business? Or a cluster of businesses even? Though it seems to go against the tenants of capitalism, every downtown revitalizer in the Lansing area has the same answer to, “How did your district begin to come alive?”

“We couldn’t afford to do anything without volunteerism,” says DLI Board President Doug Johns.

“None of this would happen at all without volunteers,” says Ken Jones, REO Town Community Association board member. “It is the people who live and work here who want to make it happen.”

Even in Old Town, says Such, “Money is a distant second to volunteers. You can have all the money in the world, but you if you don’t have volunteers, if you don’t have heart, you don’t have anything.”

The quantification of that heart makes the impact of volunteers on their districts clear. During the 2009/2010 fiscal year, the OTCA logged 1,184 volunteer hours, and DLI recorded 7,090. Together, that’s the equivalent of four full-time employees giving back to their communities on their own time. For a year. With no vacation time. And that doesn’t include the uncounted hours of the RTCA, a revitalization effort that is currently 100 percent volunteer.

But the question remains: why, if downtowns are essentially just commercial districts, why are volunteers dedicating time to helping out the for-profit ventures of others’, whether it’s the property owners or the businesses within them?

Ryan Wert of the RTCA board says, “As someone who lives in the neighborhood, I’d much rather walk around the corner and see a bunch of restaurants than a bunch of empty space. It’s mutually beneficial for everyone to ban together for our community.”

And fortunately for downtowns, the migration of both the young professional and empty-nester sets to urban living have made these districts home to people with energy and time on their hands.

The magic of downtown development seems to be that it’s about more than economic development; it’s about community development. Because authentic downtown districts are places with history, they’re also places with character.

Old Town experienced its first wave of community volunteers in the mid-1990s when a group of artists including Terry Terry and the late Robert Busby decided that despite it’s bad rep, the district’s 90percent vacancy rate provided the potential to build a community that was right in their price range.

“A lot of the buildings were selling for extremely cheap,” says OTCA Executive Director Brittney Hoszkiw. “Fortunately that group of artists saw beauty in those buildings.”
“According to them,” she says, “they were just looking for a place to share ideas.”

Once the artists were there, they wanted to make their home nice, so they banded together to do just that. Hence, the birth of volunteerism happened in Old Town.

So when a volunteer decides to help out, what does he or she hope the result will be? And what does that volunteer do to make that happen?

“My whole philosophy about healthy, vibrant communities is that you have communities that are healthy, unique and distinct,” says Tom Edmiston of the RTCA.
The job of volunteers becomes the pursuit of defining those distinctions and then promoting them to the public. While some of these activities are more obvious - helping with downtown events, for example - others are more obscure. Volunteers can be tasked with anything from maintaining merchant contact lists to giving tours of available properties; from Facebook updating to grant applications.
And some jobs are even less glamorous.

“Everything,” is Hoszkiw’s answer to what OTCA volunteers do. “Trash removal, snow removal, all the streetscape work, banners and baskets, flowers, the playground, the garbage cans, the planters, everyday watering…

“A lot of people look at the pedestrian-friendly streetscape and assume it’s the city, but it’s definitely all done by volunteers.”

Would a volunteer take an afternoon to pick up trash in the front of a strip mall? It hardly seems likely.  The only explanation as to why such dedication can be inspired by historic downtowns is the magic behind the word “community.”

“When you added students and people living downtown to [the office workers], the mentality of the businesses changed,” says Mindy Biladeau, DLI executive director. “They’re not closing their doors at 3 p.m. anymore. People are coming down here on weekends; you see families and people pushing strollers.

“You did not see that before it had this sense of community.”

As if the impact of volunteerism isn’t obvious by the annual turnout for Old Town’s Festivals of the Sun and Moon or the number of lively patrons on Washington Square at 11 p.m. on an average Saturday, the numbers explain even more.

As of 2010, the OTCA counted 91 businesses supporting 1,038 jobs in Old Town with a 17 percent first-floor vacancy rate and 13 percent for upper floors. Compare that to the 90 percent vacancy rate in 1996 when a few newbies in the neighborhood decided to volunteer their time to make their community a little nicer.

Now that is the power of volunteerism.


Natalie Burg is the news editor for Capital Gains.

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



Photos:

Volunteers paint banners, clean up Old Town on Earth Day, set up tents for the Chili Cook-Off, participate in the annual River Clean-up and help set up for Ignite Lansing 4.0.

All Photographs © Dave Trumpie

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