In the Second Ward, where longtime incumbent Sandy Allen faces challenges from four other candidates, the issue of downtown development raises the ire of three of her opponents, who think their ward is the redheaded stepchild of the city.
Jimmie Currin Sr. said his ward has been neglected in favor of downtown development and called downtown the “heart of the city."
"Once the bloodlines stop supplying the heart, it dies. The south end (of the city) is dying off," he said.
As the City Council races begin to heat up for the Aug. 4 primary, the topic of development and whether it should be focused on downtown could be a dividing issue, with some candidates campaigning already that their neighborhoods have been left out of the downtown economic development bonanza.
The two major developments that have come to Lansing recently — the in-progress redevelopment of the Ottawa Street Power Station and the completed Stadium District condominium complex — are both downtown, while other high-profile planned developments are there, too. However, some commercial and residential districts in north and south Lansing are dead or dying.
Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, who is running for re-election, apparently thinks the issue is important: he scheduled a press conference for today to announce an economic development study of south Lansing.
Second Ward candidates Jonathan Solis and Bryan Decker say that they’re running for Council because the south side has been neglected in favor of downtown.
“I think the Second Ward needs more attention," Decker said.
But Second Ward candidate Tina Houghton, a member of the Parks Board, doesn’t see the focus on downtown development as at the expense of her ward. The emptiness is a result, she says, of the large number of small businesses failing to stay afloat in challenging economic times.
"Focusing on downtown has been a priority," she said, "and hopefully, that investment will all flow out to other wards."
That doesn’t mean letting up on actively recruiting business to the area or working to retain business through incentives, she said.
Incumbent Second Ward Councilwoman Sandy Allen feels the same.
"Things start at the core and move out. It might move slowly, but it does move,” she said.
Outside the Second Ward, only one candidate thinks development downtown is a divisive issue.
At-Large candidate Rina Risper said downtown development has "polarized" the city with developments prior to the economic collapse disproportionately sited downtown.
"Lansing has a fantastic economic development team that could work to encourage builders and new businesses to diversify other parts of town for construction and reuse of property," she said.
For At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar, who is up for re-election this year, presenting downtown development and the neighborhoods as an "either/or" proposition isn’t accurate.
"I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. Anybody who defines this as black and white doesn’t understand," Dunbar said, who also runs the South Lansing Community Development Association.
While some may feel south Lansing (loosely defined as everything south of Interstate 496) isn’t getting attention, Dunbar says that’s not the case. She points to Jackson National Life’s pledge to add jobs and a new NuUnion Credit Union branch.
Fellow At-Large Councilman Brian Jeffries, also running this year, says that the south side lacks branding that, say, Old Town has. After the focus on downtown, and the successes in redevelopment, he says it’s time to widen the lens.
Former Councilman Harold Leeman, running for an At-Large seat, says the idea that any part of the city is suffering at the expense of downtown is an issue of perception. Media coverage of development is confined to downtown, and that makes people in the wards wonder aloud why they’re not getting the same treatment, he said.
"Spread it around so everyone feels they’re part of redevelopment instead of everything being talked about downtown,” he said.
In the Fourth Ward, which includes downtown, candidate Tom Truscott said that development downtown is a good start, but leaves something to be desired.
"Coldwater has a better downtown than Lansing," he said, and asserts that’s because models for development — Indianapolis, Columbus and, sometimes, Chicago — do not fit Lansing, which is more small town than urban giant.
He would like to see the downtown include more retail and thinks some neighborhoods should be made into historic districts, allowing for tax breaks.
Fourth Ward candidate Jessica Yorko believes that focusing on the downtown core doesn’t mean “shunning” the outer rings of the city. Her work to revitalize the Saginaw Street business corridor is proof, she says, that business and redevelopment opportunities are available outside the core. But at the same time, downtown redevelopment attracts people to Lansing.
“We need a strong urban core,” Fourth Ward candidate Chris Lewless said.
But a sparkling downtown isn’t the only key to a revitalized city. "A lot of urban renewal depends on mak ingsure that proper infrastructure extends beyond just the downtown area," he said. But none of that matters unless the city can attract residents.
"We’re going to have a hard time attracting businesses anywhere if we can’t get people to buy homes," he said.