How distant work remodeled this Midwest city

Michigan Avenue in Lansing, Michigan.

Mike Kline (Notkalvin) | moment | Getty Images

Lansing, Michigan may never be the same. The city of just over 110,000, known for its towering state capitol, large convention center and proximity to college campuses, is trying to reshape itself for a post-Corona world.

It has been more than three years since the global pandemic caused workers accustomed to five-day face-to-face weeks to leave their offices. Many desk workers still work from home for at least part of the week. That’s because remote and hybrid working models, initially introduced as a short-term solution, have proven to have resilience even after the global public health emergency has officially ended.

The trend, in turn, has transformed the aesthetic and culture of downtown areas across the country that once relied on an influx of commuters. In Lansing, this shift is reflected in different work hours, more living space, and new event spaces as community and business leaders seek to redefine what and who downtown serves. All of this is done in an effort to attract people to live or visit amid the reality that Lansing and other cities can no longer thrive on an office-centric economy.

“We are considering how we can shift our energy from primarily serving one community to ensuring a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere for all in our downtown neighborhoods?” said Cathleen Edgerly, executive director of Downtown Lansing, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to the culture and sustainability of the inner city. The goal is to “make the downtown area and community for those who want to be there, not for those just going in and out as quickly as possible.”

“A Rising Tide”

Workers across the country are pushing to keep remote privileges in place, even as executives from big companies like Disney or Tesla try to get their employees back into the office, at least part-time.

According to data from WFH Map in a collaboration between a group of researchers and Lightcast, a labor market analysis firm, a greater proportion of job openings across the country offer at least one day of remote work than before the pandemic. It’s a sign that flexible work experiences are becoming more commonplace — and not just for jobs started before or during the pandemic.

According to the WFH Map, Lansing had the highest proportion of job openings of any city in March with at least one day of remote work. Founder Peter Lambert, an economics PhD student at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said capital cities and tech hubs tend to top the list because they cater to outlying industries, including technology, finance, insurance, higher education and government.

“Lansing is a great case study because it meets all of the criteria above,” he said.

Edgerly said the first shift in the downtown core from the onset of the pandemic has resulted in a 30% drop in overnight commuting and the closure of over 1 million square feet of office space. Since that restructuring, she said, companies have begun shifting hours to later evenings and weekends as the economic focus shifts away from commuting.

New community-oriented spaces are also emerging. Plans for two entertainment venues have been announced, hoping to attract nighttime and weekend visitors. And the owner of a Detroit grocery store opened a similar space in Lansing earlier this year.

Approximately 40% of first floor retail stores were once vacant, but that number has declined. According to Edgerly, this is partly due to the success of a micromarket incubator designed to help merchants find a low-barrier location in Lansing to operate for a year. According to Edgerly, all of the previous participants are still in business and about four out of five have opened permanently in the city.

Between 300 and 400 residential units have also been added in recent years, Edgerly said, as a comprehensive market analysis has shown the need for more living space.

A view of downtown Lansing, Michigan.

Denistangneyjr | E+ | Getty Images

Because Lansing is Michigan’s capital, tourism still exists, although the city isn’t as big as other cities in the state, such as Detroit. According to the government, around 115,000 people visit the capital every year.

At the Impression 5 Science Center, a museum, executive director Erik Larson said his team had started training at the local tourism office to help spread the word about the other experiences available to tourists. He said the goal is to make more visitors want to come if they take full advantage of a trip to the city.

“It’s a rising tide,” he said. “We want there to be a really strong, vibrant small business community downtown and beyond.”

Statewide initiatives such as permitting outdoor business districts to allow consumption of alcoholic beverages within their borders have also helped build this economic fabric between businesses. For example, a visitor or resident can now buy a beer to go from a bar while browsing retail outlets.

Other cities across the country are also experiencing major changes.

In San Francisco, which has become something of a national icon for office exodus, fewer than half of the workers who commuted into the city before the pandemic arrived weekly, according to the city’s Bureau of Labor and Development in early April. And an analysis by Bloomberg found that remote work costs Manhattan more than $12 billion annually.

‘A Better Place’

Despite progress, challenges for the local economy remain.

Karl Dorshimer, president of Lansing Economic Development Corporation, said the biggest challenge for businesses remains the ongoing labor shortage in the retail and service sectors. Rising wages lured some workers back but hadn’t completely solved the problem, he said. (The unemployment rate in Lansing is significantly lower than it was at the peak of the pandemic, but it’s still above where it was before the 2020 lockdown went into effect.)

According to Keith Lambert, chief operating officer of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership, childcare costs also remain a challenge, particularly for women in the local labor market. LEAP has helped create a coalition to cut childcare costs after the impact of the problem on the workforce during the pandemic became unmistakable.

Similarly, Lambert said big companies are starting to think about their role in improving transportation in the region. The lack of parking has also hurt downtown business and visitor interest, according to several small business owners.

Lansing, Michigan, USA in the evening at the Michigan State Capitol.

Sean Pavone | Istock | Getty Images

Economic development leaders and entrepreneurs alike are pointing out that there is still room for progress. Mike Mahdi, owner of New Daily Bagel, said he still doesn’t have enough foot traffic to fund the weekends, but he’s noticed a better mix of street attire and office attire among shoppers.

But those who’ve seen the ebb and flow of downtown can certainly see at least the first signs of a changing tide. Stewart Powell, who has worked at Linn & Owen Jewelers in the city for around four decades, said he has seen the city’s transition away from being a “very large food court” to a more traditional city with a diverse mix of businesses and Customers seen since the pandemic hit.

“I think this will be a better place in the long run,” he said. “Not because of Covid, but despite Covid.”

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