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Upper floor housing rehabs spur neighborhood growth

Downtown living key piece of the downtown growth puzzle in Manistee

A rush of upper floor housing rehabs in Downtown Manistee laid the groundwork for half a decade of growth. Two new artists, business owners and downtown residents add to the developing, year-round community in Northern Michigan.

Between strip malls and online shopping, keeping up is no easy task for small downtown businesses. Fortunately, civic and local business leaders in Manistee have been working relentlessly for decades to attract visitors to their picturesque, 18 square-block downtown along the Manistee River Channel. Recruiting and retaining businesses is the name of the game, according to Manistee Downtown Development Authority (DDA) Director Travis Alden, and a key means to that end is a growing population of downtown residents.

“Whenever you have people living downtown, it always adds more activity,” says Alden. “They are a built-in customer base."
“Whenever you have people living downtown, it always adds more activity,” says Alden. “They are a built-in customer base. Especially in a small downtown that is a pedestrian neighborhood, it’s always great to have residents in a close cluster.”

Everybody Wins

In Manistee, that cluster is getting even denser. The recent opening of the Daybreak Gallery & Studio brought more than class, culture and a new business to downtown; it brought new residents.

“It’s always been a dream of ours to have a studio where we live,” says Calli Laundre, co-owner of the Daybreak Gallery with Schyler Binkley. “[The building owner] started renovations before we even knew that the previous gallery owners were retiring. He wanted to keep the gallery a gallery and have the tenants live above in the apartment he was renovating. It was one of those things where everybody wins.”

Alden would second that assertion on behalf of the entire downtown. While increased patronage for surrounding businesses and convenience for the residents themselves are great indirect benefits, transitioning under-utilized upper floors into rental units can have the biggest direct impact on the building owners.

“It adds an extra stream of income,” Alden says. “If you look at these old historic buildings, most of the time you’ve got a first floor that is utilized as commercial space, but you’ve got another 2,000 square feet of vacant space. Why not turn that into something that can create cash flow?”

After all, he notes, while current, affordable rental rates are terrific for business tenants, it’s still a tough market out there for the owners themselves. The added source of income makes historic downtown buildings a better investment for property owners, which benefits the overall downtown economy.

The Growth Begins

That’s a trend Manistee has been watching unfold for some time. In 2007, the City of Manistee and Manistee DDA partnered with the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) and downtown property owners to renovate 15 rental units. Since that time, the Manistee DDA has accumulated a net gain of 12 new businesses and recorded $3.6 million in public and private investment.

Downtown Manistee now has 51 apartment units downtown, and while they’re not all traditional long-term rentals, Alden
Since that time, the Manistee DDA has accumulated a net gain of 12 new businesses and recorded $3.6 million in public and private investment.
says the variety works for the district that is a natural draw for locals and tourists alike.

“We have a handful of residential units on second floors on the north side of River Street that are used as vacation rentals,” he says. “In a couple of situations, they come with a boat slips.”

The Daybreak Studio and Gallery is an example of how the beat of creating success upstairs goes on in Manistee. Showing his confidence in Manistee’s downtown, a local investor renovated all three floors after the former gallery owner retired, turning the upstairs into an apartment loft, while the main floor is used for retail space, and the basement for studio space.

The Future of Growth

New gallery owners Binkley and Laundre, both 24 and fresh out of art programs at Western Michigan University, are “energetic entrepreneurs” who are now living and working out of the renovated art gallery. Binkley makes pottery, while Calli is a screen printer. The gallery will sell a variety of art items, including photography, jewelry and pottery.

“It’s a big switch; we both moved from Kalamazoo,” says Binkley about working and living downtown. “You see the same folks every day, people know your name and just stop on the street and talk to you.”

Alden says businesses such as this one do double duty, offering retail items for sale and serving as a draw downtown for people who are interested in art and culture.
Alden says businesses such as this one do double duty, offering retail items for sale and serving as a draw downtown for people who are interested in art and culture.

“It fits in well with the existing culture of arts,” says Alden.

The addition of mixed-use developments like the Daybreak Gallery & Studio is only one of several initiatives necessary to keep a downtown vibrant. The DDA director says downtown development is like putting together a puzzle. Efforts piece together Manistee’s success as a cool place to visit, shop and live have been taking place over the past three decades.

Since 1982 when the DDA was formed, Manistee has embarked on several major initiatives to revitalize the downtown, funded in part by tax increment financing. Those projects include a riverwalk development, downtown lighting, street Improvements, and the coordination of several events. And of course there’s the draw of the beach and nearby natural attractions.

“There’s no silver bullet,” says Alden.

One thing is for sure; regardless of the number of initiatives it takes to keep a downtown growing, residents are a key piece of the development puzzle. In Downtown Manistee, the growing community of downtown residents will remain at the heart of that effort, from the money they spend, to the work they do, to the sense of community they create.

Upper floor housing rehabs spur neighborhood growth
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Travis Alden
Director, Manistee Main Street, Downtown Development Authority

What kind of effect will the newly opened Daybreak Gallery & Studio renovation have on downtown development and the businesses and business people already doing business downtown?
We have a couple of young, creative entrepreneurs who have moved to Manistee. That in itself will bring a new energy. The renovation of the gallery space into a modern, sophisticated gallery space is great, and brings a little bit of a metropolitan feel. People get it that a critical mass of businesses downtown - shopping destinations in particular - is good for all businesses downtown.

Why is it important to keep an art gallery in the downtown district?
An art gallery is one of those unique hybrid-type of businesses that contributes both as a retail shopping destination and a cultural amenity, similar to how a bookstore or coffee shop can be shopping/dining yet also a place to hang out. Businesses that fill multiple roles like that are very important to traditional downtowns like ours, and helps differentiate us from a strip mall or modern shopping center, which are purely consumption-driven.

What has been the driving force for downtown development in Manistee?
We approach downtown development in a myriad of ways: marketing, special events, business recruitment, property redevelopment, beautification, volunteer development, capacity building, strategic partnerships, the list goes on. The driving force ultimately is the desire to maintain and enhance our historic downtown district, which in many ways is the heart and soul of our community

What types of challenges do you think the new proprietors of Daybreak Gallery & Studio will face establishing a successful business in the downtown area?
Probably the biggest challenge will be building awareness. New tools such as social media help a little, but it’s hard to cut through the clutter that we are all exposed to every day. The bread and butter of small businesses like Daybreak will be taking care of their customers, cultivating a loyal following, and building on that. You can't give it six months and decide it's not working. It's not a sprint; it’s a marathon.