July 27 2016 01:20 PM

Vanessa Shafer takes over Old Town Commercial Association

Okemos resident Vanessa Shafer started as the Old Town Commercial Association's new executive director Friday.
Ty Forquer/City Pulse

After a month-long search for a new executive director, the Old Town Commercial Association has announced its new leader. Vanessa Shafer, an East Lansing native and Okemos resident, started in the position Friday. Shafer, 47, is replacing Austin Ashley, who left the position in June.

“We really like how open and relatable she is,” said Jamie Schriner-Hooper, president of the Old Town Commercial Association’s board of directors. “When you’re dealing with a diverse group of business owners and residents, it’s important to have those people skills.”

Shafer spent the last 12 years of her career in the restaurant industry, working as a service manager and culinary manager at the Okemos Olive Garden.

“When I left Olive Garden, I took four months off to figure out something other than corporate work,” Shafer said. “When I saw the OTCA position, it seemed like a perfect fit.”

The commercial association’s next big event is Old Town Oktoberfest, which kicks off Sept. 30. While Shafer is still meeting business owners and getting better acquainted with the neighborhood, she already has some goals in mind for Old Town.

“I’d like to see the expansion of Old Town down Grand River to Washington Avenue, without losing the sense of community we have on Turner Street,” she said, adding that her main goal is to “continue the excitement that Old Town businesses have generated.”

That excitement, in fact, has created a new set of concerns. As Old Town has grown so quickly, new challenges have emerged.

“Old Town is almost a victim of its own successes,” Shriner-Hooper explained. “We have so many people who want to come in and host events. Now we’re thinking about parking and public restrooms and other issues we never had to worry about before.”

Shafer’s vision for Old Town — and Lansing — is shaped by 13 years she spent living in Portland, Ore. While she hopes to collaborate with downtown Lansing and REO Town, she also thinks it’s important that each district cultivates its own identity.

“Portland is composed of small neighborhoods. Each neighborhood had a bistro and a bakery and unique shops,” she said. “Each neighborhood was distinct. Those differences make a great city.”