Lansing Growth Series Part 3: A place to play
No matter how many jobs are created or urban loft developments built, if a place isn’t cool, it just isn’t cool. Anyone who has survived junior high knows becoming cool isn’t something that just happens overnight. For cities, it’s not all that different.
If you’re known as a cool place to hang out, people will happily come visit your restaurants, bars and stores. If you’re not, well, good luck with that. Lansing, it turns out, has managed to become cool. The last ten years have, in fact, totally changed the entertainment-scape in the city. And it all began with one thing.
“I think the biggest thing that people will look back on is when the Lugnuts were purchased and brought to Lansing,” says Vice President of Marketing Communications for The Greater Lansing Convention and Visitors Bureau, Tracy Padot. “I think that development really helped anchor and revitalize downtown Lansing, which has had a ripple effect on our neighboring communities.”
“I’ve got to think that the stadium was the catalyst for all of this,” agrees Dave Sell, vice president of 414 Entertainment, the firm that owns a collection of bars, restaurants and entertainment venues right across Michigan Avenue from Cooley Law School Stadium. ”I’m old enough to remember this area before the stadium was there. It was pretty seedy and shady. I imagine if you talked to someone who hasn’t been here in ten years, they would be dumbfounded by what is here now.”
Lugnuts Bringing Cool to Downtown Lansing
The first pitch was thrown at what is now Cooley Law School Stadium 16 years ago, but the momentum it produced for entertainment in Lansing really began bearing fruit over the last decade. Sell recalls that time, when 414 Entertainment’s primary business was just The Exchange.
“That was The Exchange’s heyday,” he says. “There were literally only six bars in the downtown corridor. Obviously, The Exchange was very, very busy back then.”
On the other hand, Sell says, The Exchange was doing well because it was the only classy choice for nightlife downtown. Now, 414 Entertainment operates more bars on one block of Michigan Avenue than the entire corridor had a decade ago.
“We did Harem next,” he says, “and then we went upstairs and did The Loft. Then we did Tin Can, and almost concurrently we did The Dugout. Most recently we added Taps 25, and Taco 911 in between. We added seven venues over four years.”
Now that is development at a quick clip. Padot explains that while the Lugnuts’ presence may have started it all, it was a gradual convergence of many factors that would finally motivate Lansing developers like 414 Entertainment to suddenly decide to invest in fun.
“Once people saw that the visitors were coming to the ballpark, then you could see people wanted to be here,” she says. “You saw the Stadium District building go up where people could live, and then the City Market and the expansion of the River Trail itself.”
That is when, Padot recalls, the resurgence of nightlife along Washington Square began.
“People were coming down for a game, so where you going to eat?” she says. “There was a reputation downtown for the streets rolling up at five pm.”
Developers heard the call. Troppo joined the downtown scene in 2004, and soon to follow was a rush of nightlife options. So many that the Entertainment Express was created, a partnership between CATA, the City of Lansing and the City of East Lansing that now shuttles riders between more than 70 nightlife venues between the two cities on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
“Then you started to see more and more restaurants pop up along Michigan Avenue,” Padot says. “And it spread beyond downtown, as now we have Eastwood Towne Center and now The Heights development and hotel that are coming.”
All of that growth in the fun industry begat more growth. Sell says the competition created by the rush of new downtown bars and restaurants is a far better situation for 414 Entertainment than being the biggest game in town.
“It breeds competition,” he says. “It’s healthy, great competition and it’s great for everybody. We’re sharing the same pool of people over more places, but the idea is to grow that pool.”
And that pool is deeper than those who are just looking for dinner and drinks. With nightlife came an array of different daytime and family-friendly entertainment options.
Downtown Family Fun
“It’s not just bars,” Sells says. “We partner with a lot of people we partner with the ballpark, the River Trail, Impression Five and the festivals. It’s not just a bar scene down here.”
According to Padot, festivals run by city governments and community development organizations are more than just another option for fun. Like Cooley Law School Stadium, she says, they’ve played a major role in shifting the fun momentum to Lansing.
“The creation of festivals downtown, like the chili cook-off and Common Ground and the Dragon Boat races, they’ve really brought people here,” she says. “There are tons and tons of festivals that didn’t exist ten years ago.”
In fact, the GLCVB tracked 4.7 million visitors to the Greater Lansing area last year, and with them, those visitors made $424 million in economic impact.
“When they’re here, they spend money,” says Padot. And that money, ultimately, makes Lansing more fun. The Lansing River Trail expansion, City Market, Potter Park Zoo, Hawk Island Park and the East Lansing Aquatic Center are all examples of investments the region has made over the last decade that have made the Lansing area a more fun place to live, which have made employers want to locate here and employees want to settle down here. And thus the cycle of Lansing’s transformation continues. And will continue to transform.
“Believe it or not, we have a couple of mop closets left,” says Sell of the 414 Entertainment property on Michigan Avenue that houses an already notable number of venues. “We kind of pride ourselves on being on the cutting edge of the entertainment industry down here. We do our thing and we do it correctly, and we constantly try to innovate.”
The determination to continue to grow and innovate by Sell’s firm, as well an entire network of private and public partners is what will allow Lansing to keep on getting more and more fun, says Padot.
“All of those entities coming together and putting resources behind developing these ideas, and asking, ‘How do we get the bars and restaurants involved?’” she says, “That’s what made it happen.”
And that’s what will continue to make Lansing an even better place to work, live and play over the next decade as well.
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.
Old Town Jazz Fest
East Lansing Folk Festival Crowds
Photos © Dave Trumpie