Jun 14, 2007
New changes give hope to downtown merchants; Retailers count on crowded streets to generate customersBy Jeremy W. SteeleLSJ.com

For the past few weeks, Stuart Powell has noticed something he hasn’t seen for a while in downtown Lansing.

The owner of Linn & Owen Jewelers was prepping his 100-plus-year-old business to move from Washtenaw Street around the corner to 223 S. Washington Square.

“I was down here on the weekend during the evenings, and downtown was packed,” said Powell, taking a break recently from clearing out decades of clock parts from his former space. “For the first time in 20 years, I saw young people with children and strollers.”

Powell and other downtown merchants credit the change with new nightlife options along Washington Square, as well as a host of new apartments in the central business district. Few downtown storefronts are vacant.

A question remains, however, as to whether those new businesses and residents are boosting downtown retailers.

Developers say apartment units are rented as quickly as they’re built, largely by a combination of Thomas M. Cooley Law School students and young professionals. And downtown bars are changing the area’s reputation as a ghost town at night.

“We are seeing a lot of pedestrian traffic,” said Barb De-Rose, who owns Barb’s Hallmark. “We hope the pedestrians become shoppers, but we haven’t seen it yet.”

DeRose and other business owners remain hopeful despite a tough state economy and the recent loss of several downtown stalwarts.

Specialty gift shop The Mole Hole closed in January after its owners decided to downsize, keeping only their Okemos store as they head into retirement. Mr. Toad’s Paper Co. is slated to close at the end of the month, to be replaced in a rehabbed Hollister Building by a Jimmy John’s sandwich shop and a national coffeehouse, building owner Ron Boji said.

Such turnover is expected in downtown areas and suburban shopping centers alike. But downtown merchants worry that every shop that isn’t replaced by another retailer weakens the district’s position as a shopping destination.

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