Bringing Life Back to Our Downtowns

Generations ago, small downtowns were vital hubs for socialization and shopping; the streets were lined with stores, eateries, and hometown service businesses. But as times have changed, so have consumer spending habits. Money that used to support local small business is now easily spent online, and for several decades, the future of thriving downtowns looked bleak. And yet, something positive is emerging … a changing of the guard, so to speak.

As Baby Boomers retire, Gen-Xers and Millennials are changing things up – and, in some ways, making what was old new again. Small towns are shedding their tired facades and embracing an energetic mix of restaurants, shopping, and experience-driven events. The vision of the traditional downtown as a functional necessity is changing to a vision of desirability. Consumers can spend their dollars anywhere, and for the first time in years, small downtowns are giving online retailers a run for their money.

Will Long is a role model of small downtown revitalization and entrepreneurship in a world that has grown accustomed to spending online. Long, a Marine veteran turned professional photographer, knows discipline. Growing his business has been a steady and calculated effort. While sharing studio space in Howell, he crafted a vision to open his own creative suite and retail shop someday. Two years ago, he packed up his young family and moved them to Williamston, a charming small city just east of Lansing, into an apartment above an empty storefront that would later become his dream space: The Studio Shop.

A curated blend of items made by local artisans and hand-picked Michigan-themed products pack the quaint retail shop that Long has strategically designed to utilize vertical space. The inventory moves quickly and changes often – a key component to success, according to Long. A door at the back of the store leads customers from a shopping experience to a large, open photography studio that Long uses for Aro Portraiture, his photography business that started it all. The studio is also offered as creative rental space for area photographers.

“Small retailers have to find a niche,” he advises. “And keep inventory from getting stale by changing it up frequently.”

Long also suggests becoming active in the downtown community, whether as a volunteer or a member of business committees and organizations. He joined the Downtown Development Authority as a board member and is now the chairman of the local organization. He also joined the area Chamber of Commerce, where his energy and vision were swiftly recognized, landing him the role of vice president in December.

During his first year in Williamston, he recognized a need to bring the shoppers back to downtown, to revitalize outdated views on the function and purpose of a small-town hub, and to create a renewed sense of community and pride in the district. To address this, Long created an event called Alley Fest, which features food, entertainment, and shopping in a traditional outdoor market environment. The event was a success and is now in its second year.

“People are busy, and they have a lot of options on where to spend their paycheck. They are looking for value, and that doesn’t necessarily equate to low prices,” he says. “They want service, and they’re looking for an experience that resonates with them. That is what’s missing online – the tangible human experience, and that’s where small downtowns have the edge.”

About 50 miles northeast of Williamston, in the village of Holly, there’s another Michigan entrepreneur shaking things up and breathing life back into her downtown, a historic business district. In 2015, Cari Cucksey and her husband Vincenzo Iafano made their home in the upstairs of a two-story building built as a bank in the 1860s and moved RePurpose – their popular estate sale and retail business – into the main floor. Cucksey is well known for her three seasons as host on HGTV’s Cash & Cari series, where she was featured running estate sales, buying and selling in her store, and repurposing items.

“I stay very busy,” says Cucksey. “There’s always something good to be a part of here, and I love that. I love supporting the local town and helping it to grow.” Stay busy, be focused, and remain current, she says. As a board member for the Mainstreet Holly Downtown Development Authority and head of the promotions committee, she leads by example.

Cucksey grew up in neighboring Fenton and has childhood memories of visiting Holly with family and friends. She and Iafano, who has two grown children from a previous marriage, were excited to plant roots with their young daughter in this quaint village and have truly embraced the community.

The duo has diversified since moving to the village, auctioning off the RePurpose inventory to focus primarily on their expanding event venues and services empire. They revamped the main floor of the bank building to accommodate banquet services, including a bar and several elegant rooms. It’s called The Holly Vault as a throwback to the history of the building. They also bought a historic early-1900s chapel, painstakingly renovating it from top to bottom while saving features such as the original tin ceiling and adding a gorgeous stamped-concrete patio with beautiful landscaping.

Cucksey and Iafano didn’t stop there. They also own a Victorian home turned bed and breakfast, called The Holly Vault Crossing House, and a vacant school building with an art deco auditorium. This is slated to become their next venue, potentially featuring retail, food, and a boutique hotel.  Earlier this year, they purchased the restaurant business and building next to The Holly Vault – their first foray into the food business. The Holly Café features patio dining and chef-created small plates, meals, and fresh baked goods in a fun, celebratory atmosphere. The comfortable, sleepy village of Holly is definitely getting a fresh take on its downtown.

“We didn’t have these big plans when we moved to Holly. One thing just led to another and then to another,” says Cucksey. “The available real estate and business opportunities here were incredible. We just saw the potential here. You really feel like you’ve stepped back in time when you come to town – it’s so charming.”

For both Will Long and the Cucksey-Iafano family, embracing life in a small town has been second nature to investing in their businesses. Living above their venues, taking part in local activities, staying fresh with social media, building relationships with the community, celebrating history, finding their niche and growing it, embracing and enacting change, and surrounding themselves with great people who inspire them – these are all components to their success. They are part of the new generation of downtown entrepreneurs who are ushering in a new era of hope for local brick-and-mortar businesses in an online world.