Michelle Sponseller: The woman who envisioned, sparked the revitalization of downtown Mt. Pleasant

Downtown Mount Pleasant is buzzing on a Wednesday afternoon. Cars are zipping down Broadway Street at a steady pace, while friends chat over lunch outside Max & Emily's or duck into Stone Soup to buy a gift.

Inside Downtown Drugs Soda Shoppe, local shop owners hang near the lunch counter, coordinating their plans for staying open during a recent holiday weekend. When they see Michelle Sponseller, they grab her for a big hug.

There's a new vibe to downtown these days, and many people credit Sponseller -- Mount Pleasant's downtown development director -- for making that happen.

"The whole character feels different," says Kathy Hill, executive director of Art Reach. "People are excited to be downtown. Michelle is, in my opinion, absolutely brilliant. I haven't seen her not be successful."

A lifelong Mount Pleasant "townie," Sponseller started in uncharted territory in her new position just six years ago. She was hired to coordinate events downtown, but she soon realized that her job was going to have to entail more than that in order to have the impact she wanted. With big box stores popping up along Mission Street and beyond, people were afraid that downtown Mount Pleasant was on the brink of extinction.

Sponseller, who has a master's degree in historic preservation, would look at the beautiful landscape downtown filled with architectural gems like the Broadway Theatre and ask, "Are you kidding me? I think for a lot of time people hadn't told [downtown merchants] they were worth it. I said, 'Come on -- we can do more.'"

Early successes

With the help of the business community, she has done more. New businesses now are jockeying for the 5.5 percent of vacant space left in downtown Mount Pleasant, down from 15 percent when Sponseller came on board. By comparison, other towns of similar size and larger have a higher percentage of vacancies. Kalamazoo, for example, has a 13 percent vacancy rate, and Jackson has 20 percent.

But the transformation of downtown Mount Pleasant was not easy at first.

"A lot of people would tell you that they were leery of me," says Sponseller. "Am I just a city employee who's going to give them lip service? I simply would ask the question, 'Are you truly happy with what you have currently, or do you want more? It's OK if we try and we don't succeed at first. But if we don't try, what you have is what you're going to get."

Rather than revitalizing the downtown from scratch, Sponsellor focused on forging partnerships among the 135 downtown businesses. And instead of focusing on competition, businesses began to focus on how to complement each other. To jumpstart the process, Sponsellor also started hosting field trips to other cities to spark ideas.

Hill was particularly inspired by a trip to Canada where they found a city decorated with colorful banners made by local residents. Interested in incorporating more public art back home, Hill and Sponseller adopted the idea for Mount Pleasant. Nearly 200 residents participated in this year's Festival of Banners.

Sponseller had several other early successes that perked up the downtown business community.

"I needed a couple of wins at the beginning," she explains. "Ladies Night Out was a turning point."

Started as a holiday sale event several years ago among a handful of businesses, Sponseller encouraged merchants to put their heads together to create an event to draw more people downtown. They came up with Ladies Night Out in November, a shopping extravaganza for women that also gives back to the community through charitable donations.

Last year's Ladies Night Out -- the third year for the event -- drew so many shoppers that it was difficult to make a path through the aisles of the local boutiques on the way to the cashier. Stores offered goodie bags, treats, and discounts. And women outfitted with free pink feather boas relished the shopping time with friends.

"The sales we have on those days are tremendous," Hill says, including the July Street Festival, September's Mardi Gras, and the Dickens Festival in December. "I attribute that solely to the fact that we're getting more people downtown, which I attribute solely to Michelle's efforts."

Reaching out in new ways

Sponseller also has helped revive the business community is by leveraging social media in Mount Pleasant, which lacked a cohesive "voice" until she came on board. Downtown Mount Pleasant's Facebook page now has nearly 2,000 fans, all treated to weekly updates about the latest events and sales downtown, and sprinkled with Sponseller's playful observations.

Sponseller says it's about being real with people.

"If you try and market downtown Mount Pleasant like it's downtown Traverse City or Kalamazoo, it doesn't ring true," she says. "If you're under the age of 30, you've been marketed to your entire life. You know 'reality' from 'marketing.' And if you're going to go to the trouble of putting Facebook out there, it needs to be real."

In the future, Sponseller hopes to attract many more of those "under-30-somethings" downtown -- especially from neighboring Central Michigan University where the student body is largely unaware of the Mount Pleasant that exists outside of Mission Street. She says people will always find new things to love about downtown.

Where downtown excels is "the personal touches," she says. "Downtown is the heart of Mount Pleasant. This is where you come to show people what Mount Pleasant is, this is where you bring them. We need to capitalize more on that."

Cynthia J. Drake is an award-winning writer, poet, and columnist based in Michigan. Since beginning her professional career in 2001, she has been an entertainment writer, a newspaper reporter, and a magazine editor. She specializes in travel and lifestyle features, corporate public relations and marketing, and higher education writing.

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