The Rise of Old Town

Now, with retailers poached from the suburbs, new restaurants, bars and a soon-to-open brewery, Old Town is hot.

“We have the complete entertainment experience,” said Austin Ashley, executive director of the Old Town Commercial Association.

The opening of The Creole restaurant and its breakfast and lunch wing, Creole Coffee Co., the expansion of Meat BBQ, all three on Turner Street, and a remake of Zoobies on Grand River added an evening entertainment option to what has been mostly a daytime community.

“It’s those kinds of things that give people another reason to come and stay in Old Town and discover all that is happening here,” long-time booster Terry Terry said of the restaurants.

He has been in Old Town since 1982 and operates Message Makers, a marketing/communications company, from a warren of offices, conference rooms and studios on Turner Street.

“When I first started doing things here it was a ghost town. No real city services, boarded up store fronts,” Terry said. “But the rough times had already passed. Old Town has been moving forward for a long time, but a few years back it was clear that we had plateaued. Now we are going to need more parking. More housing might be next.”
Terry believes that Old Town has attained a long-sought critical mass. “It isn’t just one thing. You need a combination.”

The most recent statistics compiled by the Old Town Commercial Association report that retailing accounted for 19 percent of commercial space; eating and drinking establishments, 7 percent; service businesses, 43 percent; galleries, 9 percent; and high-tech firms, 12 percent. The food and drink sector has likely grown since this 2013 accounting.

Terry wants to ensure that as Old Town gentrifies – a term people there dislike, but acknowledge – it regains “good quality spaces for artists to live and work.” He said it might mean moving into the surrounding neighborhoods. Old Town proper is running out of space.

“We’ve had a very low vacancy rate for so many years and now it is even higher than the 90 percent threshold. It’s pushing close to 100 percent,” Ashley said, adding that retail space leased between $10 and $12 a square foot.

“There are several businesses that want to come to Old Town and can’t find the space they need. We send them downtown or to REO Town.”

He and others expect future growth to happen along Turner Street as far north as the Golden Harvest Restaurant, on Grand River east of Zoobies and Washington Avenue south of Elderly Instruments.

Long before the term “incubator” became part of the development lexicon, it was part of Old Town’s culture. Business there started small, shared space and worked together to create a community that was nurturing and sustainable.

“I started out by introducing seven lines of furniture and accessories, retailing out of the Absolute Gallery. They rented me a small corner space and I grew to the other side of the corner. It was maybe 100 square feet,” said Bradly Rakowski, owner of Bradly’s Home and Garden.

“I was there for about 16 months until I moved two doors down to the comfort station after it was renovated. That was 480 square feet and I was there for 14 months.”

In April, Rakowski moved again, this time to a storefront at 117 Grand River, and has purchased the adjacent building at 115 to feature the Craig Mitchell Smith Glass line of products. And he has expanded his furniture and accessories line to include home design services.

Reflecting his start-up roots, Rakowski during the summer provided pop-up space to Celeste Saltzman, owner of Retail Therapy in Okemos, who, based on her success in Old Town, relocated to 1209 Turner Street in January.

Anticipating the move, Saltzman met with owners of other boutiques – Grace’s and Curvaceous – to collaborate on product lines rather than compete. She said she welcomes the sense of community in Old Town, which she contrasted with the impersonal surroundings at Retail Therapy’s previous location in Okemos near Meridian Mall.

“Sometimes a small business doesn’t think about those things,” Ashley said of the merchants in his association. “But it all comes down to making sure everyone does well.”

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