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Tuesday, March 9,2010

Spark it

The latest Ignite Lansing fires up locals and a landmark downtown building

by Gretchen Cochran
The first Ignite event in the Lansing area was held in the cavernous undeveloped space atop the Barnes and Noble Bookstore in downtown East Lansing. That space now is part of the MSU/ East Lansing business incubator.

The second Ignite — version 2.0 — was at the former Temple Club in Old Town. That building is being redeveloped and could host similar events, and perhaps even a restaurant.

The latest Ignite — version 3.0 — was held Friday night inside the long-vacant Knapp’s Department Store building in downtown Lansing. The building is an art deco masterpiece and organizers Ben Slater and Jen Middlin hoped owner Nick Eyde might reap some interest from a potential buyer for the property.

“We want to put it any place where you’re not supposed to have an event,” Slater said with a smirk.

“Each place Ignite has been held represents an opportunity,” said Middlin, who works at Nuva Marketing.

But the organizers of Ignite have other motives, too. They want to display what is funky and cool here.

“We want to ignite the loud underbelly of the area,” Middlin said. “There are some wicked smart things happening here.”

Ignite 3.0 was a mixture of a laser light show, caramel corn, and reverence for a grand old department store; it also relied on all things techno, from the music to the ticket dispersal, to live Twitter feeds.

The mood was set by Knapp’s giant storefront windows, which were filled with mannequins clad in paper gowns designed by members of Lansing Community College’s Fashion and Apparel Fashion Design Association. People waiting in line were entertained by Chrissie Bingham, a Michigan State University student twirling flaming batons and lighted hula-hoops. Inside, where cosmetics and jewelry once were sold, multi-colored lasers flashed through fog in time to a pulsating throb of electronic dance music.

Middlin and Slater are part of the movement to nudge Mid-Michigan out of its negative mind-set and into thinking about industries of the future. In so doing, their cadre, generally in the 30-year-old range, is striving to keep their generation here.

Ignite is only one of their projects.

Middlin is developing TEDx Lansing, the offshoot of TED (technology, entertainment, design), a New York and Vancouver-based non-profit devoted to spreading new ideas.

TEDx, which will occur in May at the Wharton Center, is different from Ignite. Speakers are invited, and selected people will pay to attend. “Ideas worth sharing” is TEDx’s slogan.

Ignite is about ideas, too. Fifteen people spoke for five minutes each on topics picked by online voters. Selected talks ranged from “How to Become an Amateur Astronomer” and “How to Survive Writing a Novel” (if you’re stuck, blow something up, said speaker Daniel Hogan) to “The Library: Not What You Think” (two librarians spoke, one who had two martial arts black belts, and one had two tattoos) and tips from Chris Singer on “How to Survive Being a Stay at Home Dad.”

Attendees voted by dialing a toll free number with rolling votes visible on a screen bordered with Tweets from audience members.

One of the most interesting talks was by Jason LaFay, a DeWitt High School teacher, with the ponderous title, “Transforming the American High School for the Creative Economy.”

LaFay proposed high schools develop small recording studios for local bands, and that students should create a theater program for the homeless, among other ideas.

The winner was Theresa Gasinski who promoted a bike-sharing program for the area.

Slater is with SGASI, a local company that produces events across the country, and provides and sets up stages, tables and chairs. Neither he nor his wife, Erin, or Middlin are paid to produce Ignite. The budget for their “labor of love” is about $20,000, with only about $5,000 in cash donations. The balance is donated time or materials. Middlin handles public relations and fundraising.

Middlin is proud that marketing expenses are close to zero. Ignite is promoted entirely with social marketing products such as Twitter and Facebook. Tickets were free, but required — 500 were scooped up on the Ignite Web site in 24 hours.

Adding to the technological emphasis, ten tickets were hidden with geocaching clues posted on the Web site in places like a jungle gym at East Lansing’s Patriarche Park.

“We want to create a ground swell focused on what could be,” said Middlin.

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