Giving people a reason to spend their money in the city’s downtown district didn’t come cheap, but leaders at Battle Creek Unlimited say the effort has been worth the investment.
In 2008 officials in the Cereal City embarked on an ambitious project to transform the downtown area into a vibrant, urban center. Four years and more than $88 million later in private investment and another $35 million in educational investment, Karl Dehn, president and CEO of Battle Creek Unlimited, said these investments are paying off with more people working downtown and more businesses relocating there to serve those workers.
“There’s a huge amount of untapped spending power,” Dehn said. “The key is understanding what people want and helping existing businesses tap into that.”
The relocation and consolidation of the Kellogg Co. corporate campus into the downtown and a major expansion of its W.K. Kellogg Institute for Food and Nutrition Research coupled with the presence of Covance, which focuses on nutritional chemistry and food safety, has translated into 1,300 additional downtown workers in the central business district. Dehn said 200 of those people are new employees for the companies and the remainder relocated from elsewhere in the community.
“A large part of the private investments were made by the Kellogg Co., and real estate is a big part of that,” Dehn said. “We need to continue to support Kellogg’s needs because they’re a huge economic driver for us. It was important to support that relocation and development.”
So far, 15 new businesses have opened up downtown including an Allstate Insurance office, the Cricket Club, Malia Mediterranean Bistro, and Fancy Nancy’s, an upscale women’s clothing shop. They will be joined soon by On Deck Sports Bar and Grill located at 217 West Michigan Avenue and Sweet Creations, specializing in cupcakes, also on West Michigan Avenue. In addition, 22 businesses have either relocated or expanded, according to Battle Creek Unlimited.
“Some of our highest-level priorities are continuing to expand the number and variety of restaurants,” Dehn said. “This continues to be a top priority with us in partnership or separately with entertainment venues that will provide nightlife in the downtown area. We also hope to have a convenience store, pharmacy and more specialty and destination stores.”
Calhoun County Commissioner Jim Haadsma, a Battle Creek resident, said creating a downtown scene with bars, restaurants and specialty shops will bring more people downtown and encourage those who work there to stay after their workday ends.
Julia Bradsher, president and CEO of the Global Food Protection Institute headquartered downtown, said she’s already seen evidence of the impact of additional bars and restaurants.
“When I first came here, at 5 o’clock (downtown) was a ghost town,” Bradsher said. “I met some friends recently at the Cricket Club, and I was amazed at how packed it was. A lot of people get together after work down here.”
Bradsher’s company employs 18 people, an increase of 15 from three years ago. Importantly for downtown commerce, the Global Food Protection Institute brings in more than 500 visitors each year who receive training and other services. She said many of these people either stay for a full business week or for two or three days at a time.
“Expanding the effort to bring people into the downtown area is important,” Bradsher said. “I would like to see more happening during the evening hours.”
There are about 110 events that take place on an annual basis in the downtown area and many of them are in the evening, Dehn said. He said he’s very interested in hearing from community or regional groups that want to develop more regional events in the downtown area.
“We have to continue to create reasons for them to come downtown,” Dehn said.
The timing of the completion of the first phase of the Downtown Transformation in October hasn’t given people time to fully realize the impact of these improvement efforts, Haadsma said.
“I think a more significant impact will be demonstrated in the non-winter months. We’ll have a whole new downtown to enjoy in the spring and summer,” he said. “I think downtown already looks better. Forget the cosmetic stuff. We already have more restaurant offerings than we did a few years ago. Our downtown won’t be like Holland or Saugatuck, but it will be more like downtown Marshall, which is really attractive.”
New street lighting and streetscapes serve as the backdrop for the downtown commerce. These infrastructure improvements have made the downtown area more inviting, walkable and attractive, Dehn said.
As Battle Creek development officials continue to bring in new businesses, they also are focusing on the renovation of blighted properties and having more residential property available in the downtown area.
“We have filled a lot of real estate but a lot of that was in close-to-ready condition or properties in need of small improvements,” Dehn said. “Now we’re getting interest in blighted buildings and even more serious interest from developers and businesses who are considering redeveloping space. That’s going to be a very critical focus for us to take the real estate market to the next level.”
Bradsher said she gives a lot of credit to Battle Creek Unlimited for the way the organization is addressing the issue of vacant and blighted buildings.
Close to 475,000 square feet of building space has been filled. About 190,000 square feet of that is new construction and remainder is building space that had been vacant.
As previously reported in MiBiz, Battle Creek Unlimited is offering challenging properties to developers for only the cost of title transfer if the project demonstrates significant economic impact.
However, the owners of a number of businesses have told Dehn that they are not interested in developing an entire building. Dehn said he needs to demonstrate to potential developers of these properties that there is interest and demand.
“It’s been challenging to get smaller businesses interested in redeveloping a building which is bigger than the space needed to meet their own needs,” Dehn said. “Hopefully, we will see several redevelopment projects in the downtown.”
These projects will most likely feature multi-tenant space for retail, residential and office space. Dehn said residential development is a big priority because it presents a good reuse of older buildings in an urban area.
“We want to continue to increase the residential population in the downtown area because that creates a demand for us to attract retail and other amenities,” he said. “The Downtown Transformation was essentially a shift in how we’re developing downtown, and it’s part of a continued growth plan. We’re pleased with the progress and interest going forward.”