Ypsilanti anticipates downtown growth after coworking business acquires EMU building

Ypsilanti officials and residents are hoping that MI-HQ's recent acquisition of the former Eastern Michigan University Gary Owen College of Business Building will bring big benefits to their community.
Ypsilanti officials and residents are hoping that MI-HQ's recent acquisition of the former Eastern Michigan University (EMU) Gary Owen College of Business Building will bring big benefits to their community.

MI-HQ, a coworking business located on Ann Arbor's west side, announced the agreement to buy the building at 300 W. Michigan Ave. in Ypsi for $2.6 million in mid-June. MI-HQ plans to totally renovate the 130,000-square-foot building into a shared workspace for STEM companies.

MI-HQ President Mark Smith says the deal will be completed after meetings with the city's historic district commission and planning commission, because the property wasn't zoned for some of the uses MI-HQ intends to offer.
MI-HQ President Mark Smith.
"There's a lot of good stuff going on in Ypsilanti, and we want to be part of it and contribute to it," Smith says.

Part of that "good stuff" is a revitalization of the downtown area, including filling formerly vacant storefronts. Ypsilanti Director of Economic Development Joe Meyers says that when he came on board in 2015, there was about a 40% vacancy rate downtown. 

"Now, you might see some empty storefronts, but some of those are actually already leased," he says. "There are only two for lease currently. It makes us happy to see it grow. COVID had a big impact, but to see us recover slowly and see the reinvestment of people like the [owners of the] Thompson Block, Bellflower, MI-HQ, and many, many others is super exciting."

A downtown anchor

EMU Vice President for Communications Walter Kraft says locating EMU's college of business downtown 30 years ago was a strategic move by the university to integrate the college with the city's main business district. The college is now temporarily located in EMU's Hill Hall while the university reviews options for a permanent space.

"When we first put it in the city, it made great sense, and it was a great facility for a long time," Kraft says. "But as time went on, it became clear that the wish of the students was to return the college of business to the main campus."

Meyers says the building never was the downtown anchor it could have been, and its main entrance was not even clear to passersby. The building faces Michigan Avenue, but entrances were off Hamilton and Adams on either side.
EMU Vice President for Communications Walter Kraft.
"It was fortress-like and everything focused on the interior courtyard, so it never got to be that prominent downtown anchor we wanted," Meyers says. "Now, with MI-HQ's plans to open it up to the street, we're super excited to have this be the downtown anchor tenant we always wanted."

The renovation will include creating or remodeling medical offices, research and development wet labs, a 160-person auditorium for use by tenants and the public, a food truck pad, a cafe, a gym, and a courtyard open to the public.

Smith says the building is already laid out in a way that makes sense for the wet labs and other uses the company has planned.

"The rooms are just the right size to convert without a lot of heavy lifting," he says. 

The conceptual plan for the renovation will also create "a true front door" on Michigan Avenue, Meyers says.

"It will have a direct staircase to Michigan Avenue and outdoor seating, showing that they are a part of downtown," Meyers says. "They're really going to make it a phenomenal downtown asset."

A catalyst for growth

In addition to being an anchor, both MI-HQ and the community are hoping that MI-HQ will spur further growth. The building is slated to open in the first quarter of 2023 and create about 300 jobs.

Meyers says that downtown Ypsilanti has a "strong nighttime presence" but businesses could use more foot traffic during the day.

"I'm really hoping [MI-HQ employees] will help support daytime business downtown," says Ypsilanti Mayor Lois Richardson. Support for local businesses is good in the evening, but still too light at lunchtime for downtown restaurants like Bobcat Bonnie's to offer lunch, she says.

"With Haab's [restaurant] closing, it would be good to get a flow of foot traffic downtown and maybe see Bonnie's and others open earlier in the day," Richardson says. 
Ypsilanti Mayor Lois Richardson.
The deal also puts the building on city tax rolls for the first time. Meyers says the property was on the tax rolls before the college was built there. But for the last 30 years, it was an untaxed university property.

"All the eligible taxes will be available to the city for the first time ever," Richardson says. "It's estimated to be more than $1 million over the next 10 years, and that would be fantastic for the city."

The building is located in an area that the federal government designates as an Opportunity Zone. This economic development tool encourages businesses to invest in economically distressed areas in the U.S. to spur local growth. Companies are rewarded with tax benefits, including the ability to invest in a qualified opportunity fund and defer taxes on eligible gains from properties in the zone.

Smith says MI-HQ received lots of interest in the new location before the deal was officially completed.

"We're already getting lots of calls for companies who want to locate there, because they like the building, the location, and the fact that it's located in an opportunity zone," Smith says. "We're not ready yet, but we're hoping to announce our anchor tenants soon. We think that will create a new buzz and hopefully be a catalyst for yet more growth in the area."

More information about MI-HQ is available here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.