Downtown Businesses Navigate Obstacles
“You hope for the best and cut costs wherever you can,” said 621 owner Julian Darden of the second year of road and environmental improvements literally knocking on his door. “And you keep looking for the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Business next-door neighbor Doug Finley sees things from a similar vantage point.
“The key for us to move through this is to keep very positive and keep very conservative,” said the owner of Chroma. “We’re trying to get as much bang for our buck as possible.”
Darden and Finley admit it hasn’t been easy.
Since late May, these two businesses have joined others in the 600 to 700 block of East Michigan Avenue in witnessing the overhaul of the city’s sewer and storm water system, and the construction of an innovative streetscape project.
While temporarily disruptive, both projects will help minimize pollutants dumped in the area’s rivers. The rain gardens will put Lansing on the map as one of the first major cities to use rain gardens to manage storm runoff through retention pools and hardy, drought-resistant plants.
On a parallel path with the rain garden construction is the federally mandated sewer reconstruction and separation project. Begun in 1992, the citywide project will take 30 years to complete. More than 203 miles of pipe will be separated and rebuilt, with different parts of the city done at different times.
“While construction may be an inconvenience, it’s an incredibly good thing for Lansing,” said Finley of the projects that will give new life to the Capitol-to-Pennsylvania Avenue corridor. “It’s something Lansing is well deserving of, and the beautification that will come from it is very positive.”
Long-term benefits aside, both Chroma and 621 have felt short-term effects that have been less than positive.
“It’s a weekly thing,” said Darden, whose business has been down 40 to 50 percent at times. “Sometimes you have weeks where you should be, then you’ll turn around and be way off. That fluctuation has been the hardest thing to manage.”
Darden has made some minor adjustments to his business plan to take the sting out of the summer.
For starters, he cut the martini menu from 100 to 40 types. Then he ran construction specials, with everything on the menu half off, including signature items like Sicilian bread. After repeated low showings during daytime hours, Darden refocused. He closed the doors for lunch, started reopening at 4 p.m., and concentrated on pleasing the evening crowd. In addition to a full-service menu with a range of appetizers, each night brought a different lineup, including smooth jazz, hip-hop, techno, top 40, salsa and open mike.
“One thing I might have done differently was to plan for a bigger advertising budget,” reflected Darden. “But as it is, times are tough and lean, so we have to pay the light bills before we advertise.”
Finley, too, has felt the effect of reduced walk-in or impulse traffic.
To combat that loss, he began networking with existing clients. In late spring, for instance, Chroma hosted a wine tasting and girls’ night out event. Clients had the opportunity to bring their friends into the salon for an informal party rather than a sales pitch. A full complement of staff attended, giving clients and guests the opportunity to connect with a variety of different stylists to chat about style.
The salon also upped its involvement in fundraising events for local charities, including a cut-a-thon for a 5-year-old cancer patient. Most recently, Chroma closed for an afternoon, hosted a fashion show, and joined forces with the Women’s Council of Realtors to raise dollars for the New Orleans relief effort.
“Part of improving and growing involves community,” saic Finley, who typically sees about 900 clients a month. “I opened this salon six years ago when this strip had just a 35 percent occupancy rate. I believe this part of downtown will just progress and evolve.”
Building and retaining clientele is a common strategy shared by the two neighboring businesses as the city undergoes changes.
“I try to stay positive,” said Darden. “There are lots of people who have come in and said, ‘I know it’s a mess out there, but I’m going to continue to support you.’ Those are the kinds of things that keep you going.”