First impressions

By Eric Gallippo

Culture consultants see promise in Lansing, E. Lansing

Maybe they were a little jet-lagged, maybe we were looking extra good that weekend, or maybe mid-Michigan’s not as lacking when it comes to arts and culture as some might believe. Whatever the case, after a whirlwind of blind dates earlier this month, a pair of consultants sent to check out our cultural assets had some nice things to say about Lansing and East Lansing and our potential, not that we don’t still have some hang-ups.

Consultants Tom Borrup and Erik Takeshita were in town May 2 through 6 for the first of three visits to mid-Michigan to evaluate the region’s arts and culture scene and opportunities, and if we’re hearing them right, the guys were impressed with what they saw. “The breadth of the arts community and quality of arts activities and organizations is pretty remarkable for a relatively small community,” said Borrup during a post-trip interview.

Borrup and Takeshita were sent by Minneapolis-based Creative Community Builders as part of a $65,000 collaborative project by the Lansing Economic Development Corp., East Lansing, Michigan State University, Michigan State Housing Development Authority and Michigan’s History, Arts & Libraries Department. The collaborators hope the results of the study will help grow arts and culture’s role in the local economy.

While in town, Borrup and Takeshita conducted interviews, held meetings and led focus groups. They visited Impression 5 Science Center and the REO Olds Transportation Museum, took part in Old Town’s First Sunday gallery walk and, based on a recommendation, ate breakfast at Golden Harvest Restaurant.

While the first inclination when talking to a guy like Borrup is to ask him something like, “How do we fix our arts scene?” or “What are we missing?” in his mind, that’s not the reason he’s coming here. Borrup said the goal is to take stock of what is already happening and look for ways to make it work better together. “I wouldn’t always put it as these things needs to be fixed,” Borrup said. “It’s looking at the assets, the strengths and the opportunities in a place and figuring out how to get people to work together around a common vision to build on those.”

One such asset that grabbed Borrup’s attention was the Lansing River Trail. “The fact that there’s such an extensive network along the river, and it has been there for a number of years, that’s unusual,” Borrup said.

In general, Borrup said Lansing and East Lansing appeared to have a lot going on in terms of cultural activity and people working together to get things done, whether that’s improving the economy, quality of life or the natural environment. “Other places we work are kind of in the doldrums,” he said. “Lansing and East Lansing just had far more richness than I anticipated — the quality and quantity of culture, and in that I include the foods and the natural world, the outdoors, river, City Market, the campus at MSU; I had no idea it was as beautiful as it is. I’ve never seen so many flowering trees, except maybe in Washington, D.C., at the right moment.”

So, if it really is all happening here already, what do we need these guys for?

“We see our work in Lansing and East Lansing as complimentary — to help strengthen the cultural community and the creative community by strengthening its connection to the other sectors.”

Put another way, Borrup said it’s important to find a balance between culture and commerce. “Cultural activities are important, but they’re not it,” he said. “It really takes a diverse economy and range of skills.”

Borrup cited Concord, N.H., as a community similar in size and feel to Lansing, where he and his partners’ work has helped turn around a downtown that used to close down after 5 p.m. and also develop some creative industries, such as design, printing and even granite. “That’s sounds a little on the edge there, but cutting and polishing and shaping granite has become part of the culture of the place and an art form,” Borrup said.

In their meetings in Lansing, the consultants also asked people what obstacles or barriers the community faces and what they would like to see the area look like in the near future. While Borrup said it was too early to get into any sort of patterns emerging in the responses collected so far, he did offer that he had observed a certain amount of disconnect. “There are a lot of people that are working together on a lot of stuff, but at the same time there’s some connectivity that’s missing,” he said. “I think it shows up both in people knowing what’s going on or knowing things, like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that was happening across the street.’”

Borrup said those gaps also show up in the physical environment, such as the changing scenery of driving down Michigan Avenue, particularly when crossing into East Lansing, or the way Old Town is a little separated from the rest of Lansing.

The consultants plan to be back in Lansing at least three more times this summer, with the next trip planned for late June. “Given the amount of interest in this work, there’s a lot of people we’d really like to talk to and who want to talk to us, so we’re going to be busy,” Borrup said. “But that’s a good thing.”