DDA Debates How to Balance Safety with Downtown Business Revival

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

Barrio Tacos and other downtown restaurants reopened this week, as the City created extra outdoor dining space on Albert Ave.

Thursday’s meeting of the East Lansing’s Downtown Development Authority centered on a complicated and lengthy debate over what summer programming in downtown East Lansing should like and how it can best be used to support local businesses.

The debate comes as Michigan continues to ratchet up its reopening protocols, allowing restaurants and bars to operate at 50 percent capacity starting this past Monday, June 8.

This week, a number of bars and restaurants around East Lansing reopened for in-house service, and the City of East Lansing also created a special outdoor seating area on Albert Ave. where people can enjoy take-out food, beer, and wine from nearby restaurants.

At the heart of the DDA’s discussion was the Downtown Management Board’s $20,000 funding request to support summer programming aimed at bringing residents downtown to spend money.

The proposed $20,000 DMB budget was designed to enable four programming threads: Nights in Downtown East Lansing, a special live-entertainment series meant to complement the summer concert series; use of sidewalks and rental of tables for businesses to host sidewalk sales; a marketing and programming contract with Piper & Gold, a PR firm; and Welcome Back activities for returning MSU students late in the summer.

Amy Schusler-Schmitt, East Lansing’s Community Development & Engagement Manager, presented the DMB’s ideas to the DDA.

When describing the proposed Nights in Downtown East Lansing, Schusler-Schmitt explained that the program would run for eight weeks in July and August and provide live music and entertainment geared toward families. She named magicians as a sample concept. The hope is that those attending will then patronize downtown businesses.

DDA member Lynsey Clayton, whose family owns H&H Mobil, raised public health concerns, stating that she would not feel comfortable bringing her children to live performances in a space that might be crowded.

Clayton argued that attendees may not take social distancing seriously, failing to maintain distance or to wear masks. Various DDA members noted that activities like singing are believed to spread germs farther, and a performing magician would require the audience to be close in together, to see the stage.

Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens, filling in for Mayor Ruth Beier, seconded Clayton’s concerns, using a phrase ubiquitous in Michigan: “We aren’t out of the woods yet.”

Mayor Pro Tem Aaron Stephens at the Feb. 25, 2020 meeting of Council.

Stephens said he believes that more families would be inclined to attend Nights in East Lansing if they knew safety measures were taken serious.

Schusler-Schmitt responded that signage to promote social distancing and hand sanitizing stations were under consideration.

The conversations were shaded by Monday’s reopening of Harper’s in East Lansing, which drew long lines and a dense crowd with few masks in sight. City Manager George Lahanas showed photos from Monday night and complained about the loud music, stating that he heard it from blocks away.

That topic also came up at Council on Tuesday night, and Lahanas and Mayor Beier have made clear that business owners should expect ELPD to enforce noise ordinances to the letter of the law, in part to discourage unsafe crowds.

Lahanas told the DDA that DJs and loudspeakers out on a deck like Harper’s creates “a certain party-like atmosphere, but not in a good way,” chasing away people who might otherwise enjoy the downtown.

Crunchy’s owner Mike Krueger is a member of the DDA and also of the Responsible Hospitality Council (RHC), a trade organization of downtown bars. At yesterday’s DDA meeting, Krueger said the new stronger anti-noise approach, coming in part because of complaints from older people living in Newman Lofts, could harm businesses.

He said that the RHC is concerned and he would like this issue discussed at another DDA meeting. Krueger told the DDA that the new approach to downtown noise was coming “sort out of left field.”

The second proposal from the DMB called for requesting use of sidewalk space and funds for renting tables for businesses to display items on the sidewalk.

Usually during East Lansing sidewalk sales, the City requires that outdoor tables hold only items sold at a discount. But due to the financial struggles brought on by COVID-19 and construction, this summer, shops would also be allowed to sell full-price items along the sidewalks.

Greg Ballein, DDA member and owner of Student Book Store (SBS), questioned how the system would work, arguing against the proposal to supply only 20 businesses with tables. He said that tax money being spent should benefit businesses equally, and questioned how the tables would be distributed.

Ballein also suggested that maintaining a table seven days a week for eight weeks did not seem feasible for many stores in the face of budget cuts and furloughed staff.

Schusler-Schmitt clarified that the idea was to ultimately support any DDA-district business that wanted to do a sidewalk sale, and that those that did not have tables could apply to use one rented by the city on a week-by-week basis. She said that if 20 tables were not enough, funds could be found for additional tables.

Ballein, who said he had already been planning a four-day outdoor sale for his shop, warmed to the idea. (He said he typically uses 30 tables and would obtain them himself.)

Clayton also strongly supported the sidewalk sale proposal, believing it would be more effective to get consumers, particularly women with children, downtown to shop in a safer open-air environment. She said that outdoor shopping areas create a fun environment and she hopes that these would continue after the pandemic passes, to make downtown more attractive and enjoyable.

The details of the budgeting remained a concern, however.

Luke Hackney, DDA member and owner of RetroDuck, criticized the DMB’s proposed budget, which put $4,000 of the $20,000 requested toward PR. The DMB planned to hire consulting firm Piper & Gold for $3,000 to brand downtown programming and to devote another $1,000 to social media advertising.

Hackney said he found Piper & Gold’s work for the downtown to be ineffective. He called for putting that money to financing events that would bring people downtown, arguing that social media advertising had little effect. Word-of-mouth from those who enjoyed Nights in East Lansing, he said, would do more.

But Clayton countered that social media advertising works well to reach people like her – busy women with children.

The motion to devote $20,000 from DDA funds to this entire project passed 9-to-1, with only Hackney dissenting. The motion included a budget amendment that moved $500 from the contingency column to support additional table rentals.

It is now up to the city staff to choose performers for the extra live events. Peter Dewan, Chair of the DDA, encouraged staff to take into account recommendations for social distancing.

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