Lansing Growth Series Part 1: The New Way To Work in Town
The year was 2002. The four-story, 36,000-square-foot Stadium District on Michigan Avenue didn’t exist. The Board of Water and Light’s historic Ottawa Street Station stood vacant next to the Grand River. Lansing Car Assembly, the longest-operating automobile factory in the United States was just a few years from rolling its last Oldsmobile off the line and closing it’s doors.
Going downtown after five o’clock in 2002 was not only fruitless, but also a little spooky. Hardly anyone was talking about hanging out in Old Town after dark. The 2000 Census had just reported the largest drop in population in the city’s history. The dot-com bubble had burst; the telecoms crash was underway.
“Few people envisioned going to work in the technology field,” says Jeff Smith, Co-Director of the New Economy Division of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership. “An awful lot of people graduating were looking for jobs outside of the market. From Lansing’s perspective, things didn’t look at all that great.”
One small decade later, Lansing is hardly recognizable. Michigan Avenue is bursting with new businesses and developments. Downtown now boasts dozens of dining and nightlife options. Old Town recently celebrated winning a Great American Main Street Awards, received for – among other things – flipping a 90 percent vacancy rate into a 90 percent occupancy rate. The Lansing-East Lansing region ranked best in the U.S. for job growth in Goods Produced, Manufacturing and Transportation and Utilities job sectors by Urban Institute’s MetroTrends.
Things. Are. Hopping.
It’s like a forest fire,” says Smith, “where you have the same kind of tree. All of those evergreens burned down, and you’ve got all the land that is recovering. Those trees will come back, some of them, and you have other plants that will grow the process.
“I think that’s what is happening right now,” he says of Lansing. “We had this awful forest fire with the economic downturn, but it made us look back and say, ‘what are our strengths that we may have been not paying attention to? What do we have good soil for?’”
As it turned out, Lansing has great soil for information technology, the arts, creative agencies, biotechnology and more, and the growth of those industries – fueled by entrepreneurialism – has fundamentally changed the city over the last ten years. Lansing is no longer the same place to live or to play, because it is an entirely new kind of place to work.
A Recession Gets People Thinking
If Lansing’s new economy is the regrowth after a forest fire, the “great recession” was the fire itself. With layoff and businesses closing, many people in Lansing had no choice but to invent a new career path.
“What that did was force people to think about what they really wanted to do,” says Smith. “You get laid off and you suddenly turn toward what you’re really passionate about. That lifestyle economy is now maturing in that those who are passionate about baking or sewing or are musicians have found a way to make a living off of that path.”
People did start dreaming up a new careers, and new jobs for others then became the byproduct of those dream businesses. People like Chad Jordan, who decided that being laid off in 2003 was the perfect opportunity to do what he’s always wanted to do: run his own retail business. The fruit of that pursuit became what is now one of Old Town’s must-visit locations, Cravings Popcorn. Not only did Jordan make a career for himself selling the region’s new favorite indulgence, he created a handful of jobs along with it.
Jordan wasn’t alone. Entrepreneurs of all flavors have been coming out of the woodwork in Lansing after their original career paths were disrupted. So many, in fact, that their efforts began to get noticed.
Entrepreneurs Get Institutions Thinking
The entrepreneurial spirit quickly spread to an unlikely bunch: local institutions. From Michigan State University to city governments, officials began to see the shift in the economic base and started thinking about what great ideas – traditional or otherwise – they could put forth to give the ideas of residents a fighting chance.
“You have to have an administration that is aggressive,” says Ken Szymusiak,
Co-Director of LEAP’s New Economy Division. “Like or hate tax incentives, they work for redevelopment. Under Bernero’s administration, the Lansing LEDC was extremely successful in in renovating properties.”
Lansing’s use of tax incentives to spur development proved to be an effective use of a more standard economic development tool for cities. Down the road in East Lansing, however, some similarly dramatic success was found with some notably less traditional methods.
“The Technology Innovation Center was the major leap taken by the City of East Lansing,” says Szymusiak. “It was a big risk. But as soon as was built out, everybody realized that his was going to serve as the nexus for entrepreneurial activity in the region.”
And indeed it was. The TIC business incubator was the first of its kind in the area, and soon began churning out healthy small businesses. It also inspired MSU to develop its own brand of incubator in The Hatch, as well as private investors to build the recently opened New Enterprise Opportunity Center. Now, they’re all churning out healthy small businesses.
Regrowth of the Evergreens
With all of the exciting and successful entrepreneurialism in the air, it might be surprising to learn that the clincher for Lansing’s diverse new economy are the core industries that have been strengthening the region for decades.
“You can point to how diverse the Lansing economy is,” says Szymusiak. “In reality, Lansing has remained a very stable economy for a long period of time.” He offers the examples of two of General Motors’ newest plants being located in Lansing, successful manufacturers who have branched from automotive into new areas, the universities, state government and the region’s status as the Midwest hub for insurance companies’ headquarters.
“You throw on top of that this new entrepreneurial mindset,” Szymusiak says, “and all of a sudden you’re adding a whole new layer of diversification. You’d be hard-pressed to find another community that has it as good as we do.”
That’s what one of those large, core industry employers thinks too. The Accident Fund didn’t invest $182 million renovating the BWL’s downtown Ottawa Street Station for their new headquarters for nothing. They stayed Lansing because this is the region with the talent to fill up the extra 500-employee capacity the new building offered.
“Lansing a really logical place for us to be headquartered,” says Darcy Kerr,
Vice President of Human Resources for Accident Fund.” There are about 26,000 people who work in those fields in the greater Lansing area. To have that kind of hub is great thing because when you’ve got that concentration of businesses you are going to attract that specialized talent.”
The universities don’t hurt either. Lansing’s success as an insurance hub has inspired Davenport University to begin the state’s first Risk Management and Insurance specialty within its Bachelor of Business Administration in Management program beginning in the fall of 2012 with classes offered on the university’s Lansing campus. So it looks like that hub of specialized talent in the city is only going to get bigger.
Which will only contribute to the forward momentum that makes Lansing an increasingly better place to work for people across all local industries.
“In reality, you can create a job anywhere now,” Szymusiak says. “That’s where we are right now; we’re at that tipping point where we’re building a critical mass of people who are really vested in Greater Lansing.”
The energy of Lansing’s new entrepreneurial movement, the programs put forth by area institutions to support that movement, as well as the steady growth and investment by the region’s core industries have resulted in a recipe for transformation in Lansing in one decade. Just imagine where we’ll be ten years from now.
Natalie Burg is the news editor for Capital Gains.
is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
Ken Szymusiak (lft) and Jeff Smith in the TIC in East Lansing
The Accident Fund building downtown
Darcy Kerr in the Accident Fund's headquarters
Chad Jordan at Cravings
Photos © Dave Trumpie