Shopping small gets big push in retail world in Fort Gratiot Township

Over the past two years, shopping trends massively shifted. More than ever, consumers have turned to online shopping leaving malls and plazas with many stores vacant.

A phrase you’ve probably heard, even more recently over the past two years, is the notion to support local, and spend locally. Shopping at small businesses versus big, national chain stores is a phenomenon that now takes place more than just once or twice a year. Small Business Saturday, a national holiday, was created by American Express in 2010, in the wake of the Great Recession, to promote small businesses.

American Express estimates that out of every dollar spent at a small business, 67 cents stays in the local community. In an effort to help boost businesses and entrepreneurs in their own backyard, Birchwood Mall welcomes locally-owned, ‘mom & pop’ shops to lease retail spaces in the Fort Gratiot Township shopping center.

Sharon Wilton, Fort Gratiot Charter Township Community Development Director, works as the zoning administrator, plans events, helps investors looking for properties, site plans for large projects, and works with businesses to help find resources.

Wilton says the ownership of Birchwood Mall changed in February 2021, when Kohan Retail Investment Group (KRIG) purchased the mall. KRIG owns and revitalizes shopping centers, envisioning a new future for malls. They believe indoor spaces like these can become a hybrid of entertainment, food, and retail, offering different types of venues including galas, expos, concerts, arcades, and mini golf at home in malls.

“This new company that purchased the mall bought several others that were in decline like ours was,” she says. “They really focus on allowing the individual communities to make decisions about who they rent space to.”

For Fort Gratiot Township, this means they’re actively seeking to rent to local business owners, entrepreneurs, and start-ups, and are able to offer affordable rent pricing, says Wilton.

“Since the mall has opened, there are 13 new businesses in there, and four or five more about to enter into a contract,” she says. “There’s been a great deal of expansion.”

Lois Potts, General Manager (GM) for Birchwood Mall, has been with the mall in various roles for the past 25 years. She attributes the mall’s recent upswing to KRIG’s way of operating.

“They allow the GM to run their property independently,” Potts says. “They understand that what works for one property might not necessarily work for another.”

“It is so rewarding to see businesses flourish and provide them with opportunities that they may not have had in years past,” says Lois Potts, General Manager for Birchwood Mall in Fort Gratiot Township.

Potts’ vision for Birchwood Mall is to create a gathering place for family and friends, by providing food and entertainment for all ages.

“It’s not something that will happen overnight, but with the community’s continued support, I do see it happening down the road,” she says. “While shopping online is convenient, I think one of the takeaways from COVID is that we still need that social interaction, and I would love to see Birchwood go back to being that place to make it happen.”

In bringing in more locally-owned businesses, and providing some entrepreneurs with their first-ever brick-and-mortar, Potts hopes to show support to what she refers to as “the backbone of our community.”

“It is so rewarding to see businesses flourish and provide them with opportunities that they may not have had in years past,” she says. “The community has been extremely supportive and doing their part in helping these new ventures succeed. The family atmosphere created between the local tenants within the mall has been inspiring. They have each other’s back and do what they can to help one another succeed.”

Making sure businesses succeed is important to both Fort Gratiot Township and the mall, so the process of getting businesses their retail spaces is very hands-on. Wilton says the mall frequently refers possible renters to the township to make sure their business idea is permitted in a commercial property.

Small business entrepreneur Kyle McCalmon owns Thumb Coast CBD, a tenant of Birchwood Mall in Fort Gratiot Township.

Kyle McCalmon owns Thumb Coast CBD, a family business and pioneer in the Hemp/CBD industry in Michigan. After opening their first store in St. Clair in 2020, they looked to expand to another location, leasing space in the mall in November 2021. McCalmon says his business is passionate about helping people.

“We are providing a CBD product that is helping so many people in so many ways including those with sleep problems, inflammation, pain, or arthritis,” he says. “We pride ourselves in educating people about the benefits of CBD and cannabis so that they can live a happier, healthy, more productive life and all of this without the negative side effects that are inherent in pharmaceuticals.”

McCalmon says he appreciates when people support local businesses, including Thumb Coast CBD.

“When you support a small business, you are supporting your neighbors, friends, and community,” he says. “You are providing employment for people in your community and you are investing in your community.” 

Wilton says pre-pandemic, the mall was experiencing an increase in vacant spaces, but COVID-19 actually spurred local shopping again. Wilton considers the shift in spending a vital one.

Birchwood Mall is located at 4350 24th Ave. in Fort Gratiot Township, Michigan.

“People are shopping online, but there are a lot of people who really want that local experience of walking into a store, touching something, trying it on, and holding it in their hands,” she says.

Despite the difficult time, local entrepreneurs also sought to take advantage of the mall’s opportunities. Wilton says many new stores went in over the course of the pandemic.

“It’s important because it allows the entrepreneur to see their dream come to fruition,” she says. “Maybe they had the idea all along, but they couldn’t afford a rental space. This allows them to be able to do that and provide their products to the community.”

The local shopping isn’t confined to the mall, either, says Wilton.

“The shopping did not really decrease in our township during COVID,” she says. “We saw an increase because people were home, people were remodeling. We did not stop getting building permits or site plans for large projects. We continued to stay ‘business as usual’ for the most part, when it came to that.”

To explore more of what Birchwood Mall has to offer, visit birchwoodmall.com.

Read more articles by Sarah Spohn.

Sarah Spohn is a Lansing resident, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over Michigan leaving her truly smitten with the mitten. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, community, and anything Michigan-made. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at spohn9@gmail.com.