The entrepreneurial case for Ypsilanti's authenticity

It's a classic chicken-and-egg question: Does an emerging artisan community create an attitude that leads to cheaper rent, or does cheaper rent attract that emerging artisan community?

In Ypsilanti, especially in Depot Town, the "artisans" taking advantage of affordable square footage does include those working in the arts -- but also food, music, antiques, natural hair care products, and more. And many business owners are using the money they save on rent to expand their product or open a new or bigger space -- things they might not be able to do in more expensive downtowns and business centers in the area (cough, Ann Arbor, cough).

But many of these business owners are finding that it's not the savings as it is the community and support from other business owners that keeps them there.

Bringing back the charm

One of Depot Town's newest businesses is antique and craft store Artifact & Whimsy, 25 E. Cross, operated by retired Ypsilanti elementary teacher Beth Wilkinson. Open for about a month, Artifact & Whimsy grew out of Wilkinson's love and family history of collecting and dealing in antiques, and helps fills the gap left by the former antique shops in the area.

After talking to a friend about the lack of antique shops, the friend asked her why she didn't open one herself… and the idea was planted. "I felt nostalgic because I missed a lot of the shops that used to be here," she says. "It used to be a real magnet for antique collectors. I walked out thinking, ‘Why not?' It was serendipitous."

Wilkinson said although the price point was attractive, Depot Town was her first choice for a business regardless."I have a connection to the community," she says. "I like the diversity of Ypsilanti."

She's already had to invest a lot of her own money into it, and expects to have paid two to three times in rent should she have opened in another downtown area. That's money she would have rather invested back into her business.

In fact, a quick search of real estate listings online reveals that a commercial Depot Town space runs about $12 per square foot while several downtown Ann Arbor commercial spaces are listed to lease for $20-28 per square foot depending on building level. For a space that's several hundred to a thousand square feet, that can make a big difference.

After Wilkinson, a recent transplant from the Ypsilanti area to Belleville, made the decision to open her own store, she made a lot of phone calls, talking to people about how to get started, "bugging everybody to death," she jokes. She even took the initiative to contact the space's previous occupants to get an "in" with their landlord.

Would that plan have worked elsewhere? Who knows -- but it did in Depot Town, where the business community is tightly connected. She also gives credit to her landlord for being invested in Depot Town, and keeping the rent reasonable so businesses like hers can flourish. 

"There's a very strong sense of community here," Wilkinson says. "You refer customers to other businesses down the block -- rather than feeling competitive, it's more of a cooperative merchant atmosphere. The merchants are very supportive of each other."

As Artifact & Whimsy is mainly antiques, although it will carry contemporary fiber arts and quilts, Wilkinson says she loved the area's historic nature. "I didn't want to be in a strip mall," she says. "The atmosphere, tradition, stories that go with it are valuable."

The perfect launchpad

More than just a brick and mortar retail shop, Rachel Blistein, founder, CEO of Original Moxie is looking to build a brand from her natural hair care products. Like so many business owners in the Depot Town area, Blistein moved here first -- nearly a decade ago -- and then expanded her business into her existing home community.

While working as a landscape architect, she bought a historic house in the area because she found she could get more house for the money in Ypsilanti. She appreciated the "funky, more diverse population" -- "Ypsilanti always felt more normal to us," she says.

Original Moxie began as a side project that came out of discovering products for her own curly, thick hair. When the landscape architecture business slowed down, the hair care business started picking up, inspiring Blistein to launched her business, with 18 products, for all hair types. 

But like any successful product, what started as a kitchen and basement endeavor quickly outgrew its space, and Blistein found herself unable to keep up with the batch sizes she needed to produce. After looking for a commercial space for about a year and a half -- preferably in the Ypsi area so she wouldn't have to deal with traffic -- a space in Depot Town, 306 N. River, next to the Ypsilanti Food Co-op, opened up. Luckily, it was zoned for manufacturing. The larger retail space will allow Original Moxie to have product consultations and products placement, not to mention the foot traffic that comes from being located in Depot Town.

Blistein is aiming to be open in time for holiday shopping. "We've been pleasantly surprised to get feedback from the Ypsi community," she says. "People just came out of the woodwork. Everyone who lives in the area is pumped to have the store in Ypsi."

Like Wilkinson, Blistein has found plenty of support from the business community, soon after they announced their new space on Facebook. "They're really eager to boost our business via efforts in Depot Town," she says. "I think they're extra excited knowing that it's an incredibly local product."

Although their location will be a manufacturing space, they're still very much a handmade, low-tech business, following homegrown recipes. In her basement space, Blistein makes batches of about 10 gallons of product; the new space will allow her to expand that three to five fold. The taller ceilings will allow for taller machines, and the single level will allow large items to be rolled instead of carried.

"Once we move into the new space, we can get some economies of scale going," she says.

The manufacturing aspect of Original Moxie brings challenges but one of the many things she liked about Ypsilanti is that it has a manufacturing history, including the Willow Run bomber plant. "There's kind of a tradition of making stuff in Ypsi that we're tapping into," she says.

Proof of concept

Rachel and Tarek Kanaan also went the route of moving to the area first, then opening a business. They've operated Unity Vibration Kombucha Beer and Tea for the past five years or so, currently just outside of Depot Town on Ecorse Road just south of Michigan Avenue and serve as an example for businesses following their lead.

Tarek had lived in Ypsilanti previously, and the couple returned there after living in California. He compared  the area to Brooklyn, if Ann Arbor were to be Manhattan, with artists and musicians congregating at least partly because of the cheaper price points.

"It is less expensive, but when we were looking for a brewery location, we weren't discriminating against Ann Arbor at all," he says. "We just found a good one in Ypsilanti."

Rachel says the cheaper location certainly hasn't hurt their growth, as the business has recently expanded into the other half of the building. By expanding their space, they now have room for a dedicated tasting area, and also an art space for both visual arts and music, which they also both create.

"It's a good place to be," Rachel says. "I think it's been great that we've been able to expand. We've been able to do more."

And while that cost savings has helped their business, they also appreciate the community support. "It's a group of like-minded people," Tarek says. Rachel agrees: "Everyone is willing to work together."

Rachel suggests to new or prospective business owners to get involved with innovation and business growth organization, or to just ask for help. In the case of Unity Vibration, they found that support in the brewing community at large as well as from Ypsilanti businesses.

"I would encourage people to not discount Ypsi," Rachel says. "The vibe is exciting."

An Ypsi entrepreneur in waiting

Cami Ross, also an Ypsi area resident, is exactly the kind of person Rachel is trying to encourage. Ross is in the process of looking for the perfect home for her business, Bad Habit Caramels. She now cooks out of a shared kitchen, the Culinary Studio in Southfield, but is looking to move to an Ypsilanti or Ann Arbor location. 

She's currently in the process of weighing her options and whether it will be a better idea to rent or buy. "We love the area," she says. "The closer we are to the kitchen, the more caramels we can make.
"We really like the community in Ypsilanti, which is why we chose to live here. It makes sense to have the kitchen there."

Her caramel business started several years ago, after searching online for a recipe for homemade holiday gifts. Now, she makes flavors like vanilla, salted, chai, bourbon, bacon and coffee caramels, and would love to have a pop-up shop to go to events and farmer's markets and be more of a presence in the community.

Doubling down on Ypsi

Maybe she can take inspiration from Mark Teachout, who decided that just one Depot Town business wasn't enough. He's set to open record and music store Two Jerks Music at 22 E. Cross St. in the next few weeks. The other "jerk" is his brother, Ryan; the name started out as a joke but soon stuck.

He already operates Cafe Ollie, just down the street, with his wife. In fact, the idea for Two Jerks came out of needing office space for Cafe Ollie and a dedicated place to keep the records they had been selling out of the restaurant space.

"I have a lot of records, and it was always my dream to open a record store," he says. However, "You don't make a lot of money selling records -- it's more something you do as a labor of love."

Like other business owners in the neighborhood, he moved to the area partly because of the affordability of Ypsilanti, and then looked into business opportunities. His wife's restaurant experience and the sudden availability of the space presented a timely opportunity to create Cafe Ollie. "We were looking to open a business," he says. "We wanted to put down some roots and do business in Ypsilanti." 

Teachout's found the community to be supportive of the new venture right from the beginning, he says. "There hasn't really been anyone in town who has not been easy to work with," he says. "It's an interesting community because it's really close-knit, like a big family -- everyone is happy that they're investing."

Two Jerks will sell music equipment, collectibles and memorabilia in addition to records, and they also hope to open in time for the holiday shopping season.

Teachout says that in the downtown areas that are more expensive, business owners may be less likely to take a chance on opening something new. "It destroys the small amount of cool culture that attracted people there in the first place," he says. "We're still seeing that in Ypsilanti. It's always attracted tribes of weird little artist communities. The prices in Ann Arbor started to rise, so it created this area where artists go to work and open businesses because they can afford it."

And those lower price points in Ypsilanti allow new business owners to approach their businesses as artists -- rather than focusing on profits first. "You can come up with a creative plan and throw some mud at the wall, and have a much better chance of it sticking rather than being priced out," he says.

Kristin Lukowski is a Detroit-based freelance writer.   All photos by Doug Coombe.

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