Downtown Placemaking, Yard Signs, Art Exhibits All Aim to Bring People Downtown

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Photo courtesy of Wendy Sylvester-Rowan.

Artwork made by ELHS students on display outside Sundance Jewelers in downtown East Lansing.

Downtown businesses have been hit hard, affecting both the area’s economy and landscape. With its latest efforts – a placemaking campaign, downtown art exhibits, and “support local” yard signs – the City of East Lansing hopes to provide a renewed sense of community togetherness.

The “Daytime. Nighttime. Anytime. Place Project” is a crowdfunding campaign with a goal of raising $50,000, eligible for a dollar-to-dollar match of up to $50,000 from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

According to the dedicated Patronicity page, the goal of this project is to activate public spaces, to encourage more safe socialization, and to boost the local economy. At time of publication, the campaign has raised $34,000 of their $50,000 goal, which ends Feb.10. So far, most of the funding raised has come from the City, but staff are hoping more citizens will step up to help.

The Place Project is designed “to address some of these challenges [of bringing customers downtown] in a way that reshapes how we live, work, and play in downtown for long-term economic, social, and environmental benefits,” according to the Patronicity website.

This project is slated to include both permanent and temporary facets, including increased seating options, light installations, event programming, art displays, and more. The City has plans to transform large spaces, like the Division Street Garage and the M.A.C. Parking Garage, into inviting, safe socialization zones with art displays and an underground farmers market.

Downtown businesses are also displaying art in hopes of drawing people downtown.

Wendy Sylvester-Rowan, an art teacher at Stepping Stones Montessori and Vice Chair of the East Lansing Arts Commission, spoke about the downtown art exhibits on display now at 15 businesses.

“The Arts Commission is working with the City of East Lansing to try to facilitate a partnership in which we try to help these businesses survive the pandemic,” Sylvester-Rowan said. “We can’t draw people downtown with events, so we were trying to think of ways to passively draw people downtown, and the art exhibit was one way of doing it.”

Photo courtesy of Wendy Sylvester-Rowan

Artwork displayed in a downtown business.

The first of three exhibits includes 87 photos from ELHS students, titled “ELHS Family Strong,” on display now until Feb. 27. Curated by ELHS art teacher Jacqueline Caroll, ELHS Family Strong showcases what students are doing to stay strong during this time of being apart. The art consists of digital prints of original photos.

Sylvester-Rowan described the exhibit as “a bright spot” for many students who are engaged in virtual education and have had dances, sports, and other traditional school-related events cancelled throughout the year.

“This gives an opportunity to see friends and family at a distance. The good intentions are there certainly, and I hope there’s good feedback.”

After the first exhibit is taken down, it will be displayed at the M.A.C. Garage. The second exhibit will feature art from East Lansing elementary and middle schools, on display from March 1 through April 16.

Sylvester-Rowan hopes more businesses sign on to display the pieces since the next round will include 30 pieces from each school, equaling about 200 pieces in total. The third and final exhibit will be on display from April 19 through June 4.

Ideally, by spring, the event will feature a more traditional gathering, according to Sylvester-Rowan.

“We’re hoping with the vaccine and nicer weather, we’ll be able to gather people downtown,” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to gather them for specific performances, and people can do an art walk from place to place and see the artwork. Then, we’ll put it up in the garage as well for a final show.”

Although the pop-up art program is merely a portion of the placemaking project, Sylvester-Rowan believes the entire effort is an important one, one that will outlast the pandemic.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Spohn.

Reporter Sarah Spohn poses with downtown artwork at Foster Coffee.

“A lot of what [City staff member] Adam Cummins is planning is trying to make East Lansing a more vibrant community,” she said. “He’s all ears, and he’s really trying to figure out what gathers people, what it is that makes you want to come down to East Lansing, and what it is that we need to change.”

Other facets of the art programming include a series of TikTok challenges, with participants dancing to a MSU choreographed piece at downtown businesses or landmarks. The winning entry will receive a $200 downtown East Lansing gift card.

To support the Place Project, donations can be made online here. Offline donations of cash or check can be dropped off or mailed to the City of East Lansing/Place Project at 410 Abbot Rd., East Lansing, MI 48823.

Residents can also demonstrate support of downtown businesses from home.

Another rallying approach comes with the distribution of yard signs. Hoping to provide a visual “show of support” for East Lansing businesses in the downtown merchant district, the idea for yard signs was generated by East Lansing’s Downtown Management Board.

Community Development & Engagement Manager Amy Schlusler-Schmitt spoke about the signage: “The signs also feature a QR code for the new Explore Downtown East Lansing web app, which features a Downtown Business Directory, information on Downtown Activities, as well as a link to the new Downtown East Lansing gift card.”

So far, 120 signs have been purchased, “as part of a pilot program to gauge initial interest of community members to utilize them,” Schlusler-Schmitt said.

Alice Dreger for ELi

A “Support Local” yard sign on display.

Interested residents can reach out to Schlusler-Schmitt via email: aschlus@cityofeastlansing.com, to request a free sign on a first-come-first-serve basis. The Downtown Management Board is looking into acquiring more signs to sell as part of a fundraising campaign to benefit the merchant community.

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