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I Love Old Town

lansing old town

By Louise Grandwohl

Location: Lansing, Michigan
Population: 114,297

Old Town’s committed volunteers, tireless grassroots leaders, and an interesting mix of businesses, entertainment, and cultural events have helped Old Town Lansing thrive despite the challenging economy.

As you enter the small community known as Old Town Lansing, you cannot help but get wrapped up in the timeless scenery, historic architecture, and artistic flair that dwell within the streets. But Lansing’s Old Town goes beyond sights and sounds—it’s the people, the relationships, the hospitality, and the dedication of residents that has made Old Town flourish. The neighborhood’s story is filled with hope, determination, sadness, and success. It is what has crafted Old Town into the unique destination it is today.

Urban Pioneers
Built in the mid-to-late nineteenth century as Lansing’s original downtown, Old Town fell into a period of neglect and abandonment starting in the 1960s. Yet within this dismal period, dedicated people, including the late Robert Busby, decided that the decay of Old Town was unacceptable. Busby and others took matters into their own hands. For the last 30 years, these “urban pioneers” have been working hard to revitalize Old Town to make it a better place to live, work, and shop.

In 1996, Old Town Lansing was one of six sites chosen to participate in the Neighborhood Main Street Initiative (NMSI) demonstration project. The initiative represented a coalition between two national organizations active in community rehabilitation: the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and the National Main Street Center. The Old Town Lansing project was designed to encourage the economic redevelopment of the neighborhood business districts utilizing the skills and experience of both organizations in neighborhood and commercial revitalization. Notably, the Old Town Main Street program is one of the only NMSI project sites not residing within an already established community development corporation.

lansing old town
In 1996, the Mainstreet program was established in Old Town. Since then, crime rates have fallen to the lowest in the city, building vacancy has dropped from 90 percent to less than 10 percent, and Old Town is proud to be a home to some of the finest art and entertainment venues in mid-Michigan. In 2006, Old Town was named a Michigan Main Street program area under Governor Granholm’s Cool Cities Initiative; it continues to operate under Main Street’s Four-Point Approach.

Main Street Approach
Today, the Old Town Main Street program is referred to as the Old Town Commercial Association (OTCA). OTCA is a non-profit organization focusing on community development, economic revitalization, and follows the Main Street Four-Point Approach®. This is a proven methodology for historic preservation-based economic development that was developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation 30 years ago. It is used in more than 2,000 communities throughout the U.S.

Since the program’s installation, Old Town’s crime rates have fallen to the lowest in the city; building vacancy has dropped from 90 percent to less than 10 percent; and Old Town is now home to some of the finest art and entertainment venues in mid-Michigan. As a result, Old Town has become one of the highest concentrations of arts and creative service businesses in the state. In 2006, Old Town was named a Michigan Main Street program area under Governor Granholm’s Cool Cities Initiative and continues to operate under Main Street’s Four- Point Approach.

In 2011, The National Trust for Historic Preservation announced OTCA as the winner of the 2011 Great American Main Street Awards®. Recognized as a leader following the
Main Street Four-Point Approach®, embracing sound historic preservation ethics, and building strategic partnerships, Old Town Main Street was honored at the Main Street Awards Ceremony during the National Main Streets Conference in Des Moines, Iowa.

Main Street Committee System
Old Town utilizes the Main Street Four-Point Approach® philosophy through its committees to build a sustainable and complete community revitalization effort. Old Town’s promo-tions committee focuses on marketing Old Town’s unique characteristics to residents, visitors, investors and business owners. The committee also develops a positive, promotional strategy through advertising, retail activities, special events and marketing campaigns to encourage commercial activity and investment in the area. In 2011, OTCA had record-high festival attendance, doubling from the previous season. The festivals and promotions are not only a draw to visitors, but bring the entire neighborhood and community together. Every volunteer, vendor, sponsor, and resident leader plays a key part in making Old Town events come to fruition.

The organization committee focuses on involving all of the community’s stakeholders to work toward a common goal and driving the volunteer-based Old Town program. The organization committee coordinates the events which help fund the OTCA—the force behind the revitalization of the Old Town district.

Old Town’s design committee focuses on enhancing Old Town’s physical environment by capitalizing on its best assets including historic buildings, and creating an inviting atmosphere through attractive window displays, parking areas, building improvements, streetscapes, and landscaping. The design committee also focuses on instilling good maintenance practices in the historic commercial district, enhancing the physical appearance of Old Town through the rehabilitation of historic buildings, encouragement of appropriate new construction, and development of sensitive design management systems and the integration of long-term planning.

Old Town's economic restructuring committee focuses on strengthening the Old Town community’s existing economic base while also expanding and diversifying it. By helping existing businesses expand and recruiting new businesses to respond to today’s market, this committee helps convert unused spaces into productive properties and sharpens the competitiveness of business enterprises.

The Residents of Old Town Group is made up of residents, property owners, and local police officers interested in working to remedy issues that directly affect Old Town residents with solutions such as the neighborhood watch, farmers market, and community garden. OTCA is the only Main Street program in the state that maintains a residents committee.

Together with partners Michigan Institute for Contemporary Art, the city of Lansing, Downtown Lansing Inc., the Lansing Economic Development Corporation, the Turner-Dodge House and others, Old Town has become a thriving environment of art, festivals, boutiques, and creative businesses and residents, dedicated to the revitalization of this historic district.

Old Town’s committed volunteers, tireless grassroots leaders, and an interesting mix of businesses, entertainment and cultural events have helped Old Town Lansing thrive despite the challenging economy. From its neglected past to its bustling present, the phrase “I love Old Town” has become a theme to residents, business owners, and visitors who experience and share in the spirit of this community. To explore Old Town, visit iloveoldtown.org.

Louise Gradwohl is the executive director of Old Town Commercial Association. You may reach her at 517-485-4283 or louise@oldtownmainstreet.org.

Want more?
Read “Place Management: Society’s Missing Level of Government,” by Chris Leinberger, from the League placemaking book. Leinberger is a land use strategist, teacher, developer, researcher and author, balances business realities with social and environ-mental issues.

 

 

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