As promised, here is Part II of the interview with Jean Henry. I chose to break up the interview in two parts because I’m particularly interested in highlighting the observations here about the future of local businesses in Ann Arbor. Looking forward to seeing our readers’ thoughts in the comments; I for one feel inspired.
G3: With the impending closure of Leopold Brothers and the choice by the City Council not to give the liquor license to Everyday Wine/Cook, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the climate in Ann Arbor for small business owners, especially restuarants, bars, and other eateries. Can you comment on the climate for locally owned businesses in Ann Arbor?
Jean: I just asked a local reporter to consider exploring this subject. Todd Leopold has been very honest in interviews and online about the barriers to doing business in Ann Arbor as a small independent. His voice will be missed. That his experience in Denver . . . being greeted with open arms and enthusiasm for bringing his talents and resources to their city–is such a counterpoint to how he was treated here and is very telling. After all the renovation and work they did, I hear that Leopold’s had their rent jacked up to three times what it was. I don’t know who the new landlord thinks he’ll get in there at that price.
The truth is that Ann Arbor’s local culture is draining away because of over-strict interpretations of building codes, property manager greed and landlord short-sightedness. The liquor license going to the public golf course seemed like back-pocket politics to me . . . who benefited . . . ? It was a clear choice of the establishment over new innovators. That doesn’t move culture forward or create economic drive.
Some of my employees moved to Ashland, North Carolina which does a great job of attracting the creative class we’re losing. There is a downtown business incubator store-front, staffed with people encouraging and assisting in the development of small businesses . . . not just tech businesses, but everyday mom and pop stores too. The city of Ann Arbor frankly acts a bit entitled to have a diverse and interesting town culture, but does little to assist it and, through their agencies, quite a bit to inhibit it. I could safely say that the building department unnecessarily doubled the time and money that should have been required to open my business. It was a burden from which we never really could surface. It was clear from the get-go that they didn’t value what we had to offer. After we were established, they were quite easy to deal with. They should treat every small business entrepreneur with open (and assisting) arms.
Many of the small downtown businesses that have survived own their buildings. More and more local identity and innovation downtown is provided by non-profits and, ironically, University-supported initiatives . . . (Michigan Theatre, Gallery Project, WORK gallery, 826 Michigan, Neutral Zone, SPARK, the Ark). Meanwhile the landlords are being incredibly short-sighted in thinking of rents before longterm real estate values. By all rights, a central, historically significant location like Nichols Arcade should be bustling with compelling, independent businesses. The anchor tenants there of long-standing deserve comparable new businesses next door. It just seems like poor planning and lack of initiative to me.
In no way, shape or form can a start-up local business with integrity afford to pay rents in excess of $30 a square foot. The market just isn’t that big or that devoted to downtown. At those prices, you get high-margin bars, sub shops and t-shirt stores geared to students and tourists. These kinds of businesses ghettoize a neighborhood. South University is deserted in the summer these days even though it is within easy walking distance from some of the most established and wealthy neighborhoods in Ann Arbor. There’s no there there anymore. When I came here in 1984, it was still a vital neighborhood serving everybody.
Kerrytown is an example of how differently things can evolve with smart planning and management. It is now a thriving business district which attracts locals and tourists alike, boosting surrounding property values. Adjacent neighborhoods have become the locations of choice for creative class renters and homebuyers. This is no accident and not entirely a downstream wind effect from Zingerman’s. Karen Farmer is cherry-picking appropriate tenants for Joe O’neal. O’neal supports these tenants by keeping rents within market margins and sometimes assists with their permits and build-outs. This kind of active and realistic management has reaped great benefits for both the owners and the community.
Small businesses desperately need the support of the citizens and the city. I think this town has become complacent, pleasant enough but not nearly as interesting as the people who live here. I’d like to see the town embrace and not fear its difference . . . actively support new business as well as public displays of art, music, activism. Maybe provide art studio, performance and non-profit space downtown in the flood plain alongside the planned greenway. Anybody with a good idea gets shut down, kicked out or hampered from even getting started. The loss of 555 gallery and its surrounding studio space comes to mind. Ghostly has all but left town as I understand it. Local talent like Fred Thomas are always more appreciated and supported outside of Ann Arbor. He has left town as well. He was a one-man creative machine . . . what a loss . . . unlamented. I hope Davy Rothbart sticks around in spite of the routine disregard his efforts receive locally.
I’ve come to believe Ann Arbor is full of thinkers who like to nitpick and say ‘no’ to things or talk about what they’d like to see downtown (using large cities as a unfair point of comparison) without acting or supporting what’s there. Blogs like annarborisoverrated (by whom???) just encourage an entitled and cynical stasis. A lot of people in Ann Arbor (from hipsters to professors) seem to have one foot out the door. As a colleague says, “They’re drinking the haterade.”
I’d like to see the town harness its considerable resources to make pro-active change, to drive culture and create excitement. The active local community just seems motivated by parks, not people or progressive culture. I don’t know why they would be in opposition to one another, but it feels that way. Parks attract stable people, but culture attracts innovative ones. I think as a town, we’ve chosen stability over progress–so we get granite countertops instead of counter-culture, good education but limited experience, armchair philosophers instead of action. We get stasis.
Let me give my props to the A2 Skate Park folks for providing a model to follow for getting things done in the city. They have been really clever in using both grassroots efforts and online presence to get their message out there. They targeted their efforts not just to the existing skating community (which has always been notably strong, if disenfranchised), plus young kids interested in skating and parents, many of whom, like councilman Steve Kunselman, skated themselves in the past. They prepared well before presenting their case to government and citizens with best practices models and well-sourced stats. Then they harnessed all resources (especially youth energy) to build support to make it happen. Their approach has been fun and positive as well as organized and competent. It looks like they’ll succeed in their mission.
Of course, if they wanted to build a for-profit skate park in this city, they would likely be hamstrung by city regulation and their efforts held suspect by the citizenry . . . I doubt they could get it built. When we opened the market, I was routinely accused by locals of “clever marketing tactics.” It was as though they were suspicious because Matt and I created a place that many people wanted to go to, that suited the community’s tastes and needs. It was frankly bizarre . . . like people needed to be smarter than the businesses around them. Well, I guess that is effectively what has happened.
I hope the town is emerging from its slumber. Recession might actually be good for Ann Arbor that way. I’d like to see the clever, brilliant people who come to school and grow up here want to stick around and make a life here. For that to happen, they need to be appreciated, encouraged and supported. Locals need to put money and action behind their ideals and desires. The city government, realtors, property managers and landlords need to help make it happen, not just assume it will and that they can skim the profits.
Well that was 7 years of frustration vented. It was bound to come out sometime. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to get it off my chest.