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News & Press: FOCUS

Business Leads the REO Town Revival

Thursday, January 4, 2018  
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Much of the history of the Lansing region is tied to the rise of the auto industry. In the early 1900’s, local business leaders convinced R.E. Olds to move his fledging auto company to Lansing. The REO Town area of south central Lansing, named after the auto pioneer, became one of the birthplaces of the automotive industry. Auto workers lived and worked, assembling cars and trucks in the REO Town area for nearly seven decades. Once the auto facility closed in 1975, REO Town began a long decline.

In recent years, the REO Town neighborhood has begun to see a revival. The neighborhood from Main Street and Washington Square to the north, Mount Hope to the south, Cedar Street to the east, and Townsend Street to the west, has begun to experience a series of important investments, large and small that cumulatively have sown the seeds for Lansing’s next great “comeback story” similar to what Old Town on the city’s north side has experienced.

Ryan Wert admits he first moved to REO Town in the early 2000’s because “it was the cheapest place to live.” He renovated a house that served as a home for his business, Elm Street Recording and as a place to live. Wert and other business owners eventually started sponsoring events to draw people to the area with limited success. In recent years, REO Town has gained serious traction and has become the latest Lansing neighborhood to experience interest from investors both large and small.

“When we started, it was a question of how do we convince groups to come down here,” said Wert. “Our first Art Attack event we had one food vendor who was willing to come and we called everybody. Now other groups are super interested in being involved.”

Much like the original birth of the district, the REO Town revival has been sparked by a large catalyst, in this case major investments by Lansing’s Board of Water and Light, combined with an entrepreneurial spirt that is driving an impressive and diverse number of businesses into previously vacant storefronts.

The Catalyst: Lansing Board of Water & Light

Without question, the catalyst that sparked the REO Town revival was the decision by the Lansing Board of Water and Light (BWL) to build its first new plant in 40 years in the neighborhood. The $183 million project included the BWL’s first natural gas-fired electric generating facility and its first cogeneration facility. The REO Town facility was lauded as a major victory for the environment in that it slashed BWL’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent and reduced carbon by 20 percent. The plant allows BWL to burn 350,000 less tons of coal each year. The REO Town project included space to serve as the new BWL headquarters, bringing 180 people to REO Town, which has served as an impetus for supporting many neighboring retail establishments.

“Where we tend to build, economic development tends to go hand-in-hand,” said BWL General Manager Dick Peffley. “We got some commitments from the city for upgrades, which we felt combined with some additional lighting that we added would transform the area.”

The commitments from the City of Lansing included $3 million to upgrade the streetscape, widening sidewalks, landscaping and bike lanes. The physical change was dramatic.

“Look at where REO Town was five years ago to where it is today. It’s a totally different landscape,” said Brian Town, CEO of Michigan Creative.

The BWL project also included restoration of the Grand Trunk Western Railroad depot, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. BWL hired an architect that specializes in train depot renovations to design the project. At times, the complex renovation seemed cumbersome considering it was only $2 million of a $183 million project. In the end, Peffley says it was worth the effort.

“We wanted to keep it as original as possible, but we also had to comply with modern day code requirements,” said Peffley. “The enthusiasm from the community was amazing. I show it off every chance I get.”

BWL’s latest REO Town project is the construction of a $26 million substation, which will be located on the southwest corner of South Washington and Malcom X Street. BWL has worked carefully with the community to design a project well suited for the site which serves as a gateway to REO Town. The plan calls for several recreational improvements, including viewing and fishing platforms and a patio. The project drew a lot of interest because it sits on the site of the Scott House and Scott Sunken Garden. BWL is moving and relocating the garden and has established a $40,000 endowment to help fund part-time staff to maintain the park.

“We’ve incorporated almost every comment into the design of the substation,” said Peffley. “It is going to be gorgeous. When they turn the lights on this thing at night and take a look, it is definitely going to further enhance REO Town.”

Businesses Move Into REO Town

The Board of Water and Light brought people into the district which has led to other businesses steadily moving into the neighborhood, creating a corridor that is taking on the feel of an eclectic, creative neighborhood. There are eateries (Saddleback BBQ, Good Truckin’ Diner), a coffee shop (Blue Owl), Reo Town Pub, theater (Robin Theater), Riverview Church, which invested $1 million renovating the former Cadillac Club and a host of media, marketing and creative businesses. Wert also credits what he calls the first wave of larger businesses that started to locate in REO Town, including Reach Studio Arts Center, Studio Intrigue Architects and Cinnaire.

In addition to being the owner of Elm Street Recording, Wert also serves as Executive Director of the REO Town Commercial Association, which is capitalizing on the excitement being generated in the neighborhood by producing a series of events that draw crowds to the area. From an organization that was once $30,000 in debt 11 years ago, REO Town Commercial Association now sponsors several successful events that draw thousands to the neighborhood over the course of the year.

Brian Town made the decision to locate Michigan Creative in REO Town in large part because he felt the area reflected his own company. Town left a long career in education to start Michigan Creative six years ago. As a startup, he located his office in the Technology Innovation Center in East Lansing and the Neocenter in Lansing. After a time, the full-service marketing company was ready to take its business offering video, design, web creation and marketing to a new level. Town felt REO Town was an “up and coming” district that, like his own company, was a bit “rough around the edges” making it a natural home.

“You have small, creative businesses down here that have helped this area grow,” said Town. “REO Town is our home. It fits us well.”

Michigan Creative is enjoying a growth period with 12 employees, an office in Detroit and customers around state. Town says his team enjoys the urban feel of REO Town, which he says is one of several exciting pockets of growth in Lansing.

“You’ve got Old Town and that artistic feeling and lots of shopping and food,” said Town. “You’ve got the Stadium District with the bar scene. East Town is coming with the work that Scott Gillespie is doing and now REO Town with a couple of really good food places, a unique theater, a terrific creative atmosphere.”

The environmental consulting firm, Triterra, was bursting at the seams in its original Old Town location. CEO Don McNabb first thought he would relocate in Lansing Township. While considering his options, McNabb moved his own office out of the Old Town establishment to create more space for the rest of the team. His time in the temporary space in REO Town caused him to see the area in a new light. After driving by an office complex on South Washington for more than a year, McNabb recognized the space and the community were well-suited for his team.

“You could feel a real sense of momentum building in the area,” said McNabb. “One of the real attractive benefits was what they did to the street when they went through and put in new sidewalks and streetscaping. It makes it more appealing to everyone here.”

More Growth on the Way

REO Town is in the infancy of a spirited revival. The business leaders now populating the REO Town landscape agree that more restaurants and creative businesses are needed. Establishments in the planning stages include a brew pub, The Rusty Nail, Sleepwater Spirits & Ale, a Mexican restaurant (Pablo’s) and Wheel House Studio, a pottery studio. The REO Town Marketplace is developing into a retail hub.

Wert sees the development of housing projects as a critical piece of the evolution of REO Town. Some condos and lofts are being added in the district.

“There is a huge need for living space down here,” said Wert. “The next few years will be interesting for housing in our neighborhood.”

Developer Brent Forsberg also sees a niche for small homes like the 600-squarefoot, one-bedroom home his company built on Elm Street. Forsberg says the smaller homes are needed to make them affordable for the incomes in the neighborhood (rent between $650-$900 monthly). Forsberg’s company, T.A. Forsberg, Inc., completed the first so called Tembo home in June and has plans for another eight to 10 homes near Elm Street and Grand Avenue by June 2018.

“For commercial to be viable, it needs to have more people living there that can walk to their businesses,” said Forsberg. “It is about creating these 24 hours streets where people live. REO Town is starting to have that change happen.”

T.A. Forsberg has also partnered with two other developers to tackle the next major REO Town project, development of the former Deluxe Inn Site on the corner of South Washington and Malcom X. Urban Systems Inc., which includes Forsberg, Lansing-based Dymaxion and WestPac out of California, plans to build an extended stay Hilton Hotel which will consist of 120 to 140 units, and a connected restaurant that Forsberg says will have a ‘cool, local flair.’ Forsberg hopes that construction on the project can begin by the end of 2018. Forsberg says that the hotel-restaurant project combined with the BWL substation project across the street will create a strong first impression for people as they approach REO Town.

“It allows this to have some life at the gateway of REO Town,” said Forsberg. “All of these projects will make it alive and exciting as you drive through.”

Proud Past. Promising Future.

R.E. Olds was a pioneering spirit whose impact on Lansing and the REO Town area cannot be overstated. The rebirth of REO Town in recent years is happening as a result of a similar type of entrepreneurial spirt, that involves partnerships and collaborations involving businesses large and small, as well as commitment from the public sector. Though the revival of REO Town remains in its infancy, the energy in the district is noticeable.

“It’s got a vibe you want to be part of,” said McNabb. “You feel you’re part of it moving forward.”

People who are part of the REO Town experience have that feeling they are part of something unique and special.

“People in REO Town are proud to be in REO Town,” said Town. “We’re glad that we are part of that in some form.”

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