Small businesses and nonprofits fill long-vacant buildings in downtown Ypsilanti

For nearly 30 years, the Smith Furniture building at 15 S. Washington St. had been vacant. As recently as 2014, it was in rough shape, with a leaky roof, a cracked foundation, and mold throughout the building.

At least that was the case until recently. And now, the nonprofit Michigan Advocacy Program (MAP) purchased the building and began moving staff there in July.

"They took a building vacant since 1990 that was a huge blight on the city, and now it's their headquarters in Michigan," says Joe Meyers, director of the Ypsilanti DDA.

Beyond the Smith Furniture building, downtown Ypsilanti is getting a facelift with new businesses opening up and long-vacant buildings getting renovated and occupied. Additionally, existing business owners will be able to give their buildings a makeover with a grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) administered by the Ypsilanti DDA.

Downtown Ypsilanti is getting a facelift as several new businesses have opened and long-vacant buildings are being renovated and occupied.

"The coolest building in downtown Ypsilanti"

MAP, the umbrella organization for a variety of civil legal aid programs in Michigan, from the Farmworkers Legal Services to the Michigan Elder Justice Initiative, was established in 1977 at the corner of Kingsley Street and Fourth Avenue in Ann Arbor.

"When we started, our former location in Kerrytown was primarily an African American neighborhood," says Alyson Robbins, manager of outreach & development for MAP. But, she notes, over the years, it became very wealthy and many of the African American residents moved out.

In 2015, MAP staff began talking about rising property prices and how much money they could make by selling the building. They decided they could use the proceeds of a sale to purchase another location closer to where most of their clients live, which brought them to downtown Ypsilanti.Before MAP took over the Smith Furniture building, the previous owner had addressed several major issues.

"When we bought it in 2017, it was no longer raining inside," Robbins says. Despite the wear and tear on the building, its "bones" were attractive, and Robbins says a member of the local historic district commission told MAP they were moving into "the coolest building in downtown Ypsilanti."

Renovations have left them with a modern, cheerful office full of natural light and with plenty of room to grow, unlike their crowded old office with its tiny waiting room.

"Now we have a nice, spacious waiting room with a play kitchen for children," Robbins says. "With our new offices, I feel really good about being able to give clients a really professional place to meet with attorneys and giving the staff a beautiful place to meet."

So far, only about 25 MAP staffers have moved into the building, but Robbins says a total of 50 will be in the building by November.

Future plans include offering one or more of MAP's conference rooms as a community meeting place and attracting a renter to a first-floor suite.

"The other half of the first floor is still not finished," Robbins says. "We're hoping to rent that space to a nonprofit, and we didn't want to finish the space until we figured out what they might need from it."

Robbins says the company has already had meetings catered by local food businesses like Beezy's and Bona Sera and that MAP staff is "excited about being part of the Ypsilanti community."

"We are very excited about our move to Ypsilanti," says MAP Co-Director Ann Routt. "We are proud to join the remarkable community of vibrant businesses and innovative agencies here in downtown Ypsilanti. This move also brings us closer to our clients, improving access to vital services."

Decode Ypsilanti and other small businesses set up show downtown

Escape room business Decode Ypsilanti will open this autumn at 16 N. Washington St. in a building that has been vacant for 14 years. 

Co-owner Patton Doyle's original plan was to open in mid-October, but renovations took longer than expected, and he is now shooting for an early-November opening.

He is building on the success of the company's first escape room in Pittsfield Township, established in autumn of 2016. New at the Ypsi location will be a "mini-game" that takes about 20 minutes instead of hours, and comes in at a lower price point than the $28 per person fee for the longer games.

"We have not been able to serve small groups well, and this is designed for them," Doyle says. He says it's good for casual players, two people on a date, or visitors who want to try out the concept before committing to a longer game.

When the business opens in November, two adventures with a secret magical society theme will be available, and a third adventure will be added in spring of 2019.

Doyle's existing escape room has an adventure that takes players out of the Decode Ann Arbor building and into the community on a scavenger-hunt-style game with the goal of introducing players to other cool, local businesses. Doyle says he plans to continue that model in Ypsilanti and hopes that visitors will discover some of his Ypsi favorites like Go! Ice Cream.

In addition to MAP and Decode Ypsilanti, a few other small businesses have opened downtown over the last few months, including the gift store Unicorn Feed and Supply at 114 W. Michigan Ave. and massage business Cocoa Healing Collective at 32 N. Washington, Suite 2.

Those businesses and other long-established Ypsi businesses in will have a chance to apply for grants funded by the MEDC and administered by Ypsilanti's DDA. Meyers said the DDA has $300,000 to invest in improvements and historic preservation. Business owners can apply for grants to fund projects that can range from a simple aesthetic upgrade to the exterior to "a massive overhaul," Meyers said.

More details are available through the Ypsilanti DDA website.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the interim project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.