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Mackerel Sky owners blame East Lansing for business demise

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Construction equipment blocked the sidewalk and on-street parking in front of Mackerel Sky in East Lansing last week, a scene all too typical in the past two years, since construction ripped out the center of downtown and built it up again.

Tom Dufelmeier, the co-owner of Mackerel Sky, said this July was the first month in two years, essentially since the construction began, that they made more money than the year before. 

Since 1990, the store has specialized in bringing folk art, pottery and china directly from artists to a Michigan clientele. They’ve also provided a salon where a rotating set of artists are given space to display and sell their wares.

At 70 and still sporting a ponytail from his younger days, Dufelmeier said he and his wife and partner, Linda Dufelmeier, plan to throw in the towel and close shop when Mackerel Sky’s lease ends at the end of the year. The loss of their artsy shop would an ironic blow to the unique character of the college town’s center that made it a destination worthy of new development.

Dufelmeier said the ability to run a profitable business ended when the city unilaterally took away the public parking lot behind their business that “99 percent” of their customers used. They said the city was indifferent to the plight of small business when a more lucrative development of new tower housing and a Target box store set its sights on East Lansing.

“They have no idea how a business works,” Linda Dufelemier said, noting Mayor Mark Meadows has had a career in government and the mayor pro tem, Erik Altmann, was a university professor. The city has belatedly opened a public garage, two years after taking away the surface lot. Many of their customers have had to walk a block with fragile items, an inconvenience they believe has discouraged many buyers.

Store clerk Gwynna Lapham, the Dufelmeiers' niece, said many customers are used to the Midwestern convenience of a parking lot and complain when they have to use the garage. Mackerel Sky, with a discount from the city, provides validation to customers.

The disruption of the development has had a negative effect on other business, even those that hadn’t relied so heavily on the lost surface lot as Mackerel Sky.

Meg Larned Croft at Woven Art said they took over space from the exiting Grove Gallery but now are just breaking even. “I am lucky because I am a destination business,” drawing people from all over Michigan to buy her yarn. “These kinds of developments drive little businesses out of East Lansing,” she said. “If more independent businesses close in East Lansing, I’m not sure I belong here.”

Mackerel Sky had already moved once, from the Ann Street Plaza, to get away from another adverse development. The Dufelmeiers aren’t willing to move again.

But the owners of Sundance Jewelers, whose old shop on Grand River Avenue was totally displaced by the new Target, feel their own move a block away to a site across from the Marriott on Albert Street, was good for them. “It was the nudge we needed,” said store owner Bill Yonkus.

“I see us as a city on the rise. This is going to open up. There’s going to be more foot traffic. I’m sorry Mackerel Sky is not going to be there for it,” Yonkus said.

Meadows, East Lansing’s mayor since 2015, also said he was sad to see Mackerel Sky go. He hoped the Dufelmeiers would reconsider as construction finishes and more people start living downtown, particularly a building for people older than 55 set to open in October. “You’ll have a whole new group of people living downtown,” Meadows said. “As construction disappears, maybe they’ll rethink that.”

Meadows said a chronic problem for downtown businesses was weathering the dramatic drop in business in the summer months when Michigan State students are gone on break. One goal of the new developments is to provide a more stable base for downtown businesses.

The new housing facing Grand River Avenue, designed for students and young professionals, should have full approval for occupancy by the end of the month, with the senior housing nearing completion as well. Next year, the New Graduate Hotel, 130 W. Grand River Ave., will open nearby to compete with the Marriott, and another residential tower will open at the corner of Abbot Road and Grand River, replacing a vacant bank.

The surface lot disappeared, but Meadows said the new garage on Albert Street that is finally coming on line will have twice as many parking spots available to the public, while the city is guaranteed the $438,000 it earned previously from the new developer for its reserved spaces. The developer’s $200,000 lease will go into the general fund. If any more development comes into downtown than what’s already planned, he said the city will be able to replace the aging sewer pipes

As a big picture, Meadows said he favored more development in the centers of cities and less urban sprawl and was hopeful that increasingly other people do, too. “Our objective is not to develop existing green space,” he said. After years of suburban malls “sucking all the diverse retail out of the area,” Target decided to plop down in the center of East Lansing, and other new businesses are springing up around it, including a Foster Coffee, a Jolly Pumpkin brewpub and a Barrio’s Mexican restaurant. 

“It’s hard to predict who’s going to be hurt and who’s going to thrive,” said Meadows, who noted a Blue Owl Coffee shop is prospering in its new East Lansing location after the city struggled to attract an independent coffee place for years.

“The city staff minimize how much people don’t like parking ramps,” said Jessy Gregg, a candidate for East Lansing City Council, calling them dirty and scary. Gregg, a former journalist at East Lansing Info, recently started up her own small business, Seams, a new and vintage fabric store, in space shared with Woven Art.

She conceded that there are few ways for downtown East Lansing to get more dense or add new development while taking up precious real estate with a large surface parking lot in the center of town.

“The main problem is we’re 30 years too late in encouraging dense development downtown,” she said. “Mackerel Sky took the brunt of it because it’s literally happening in their backyard.”

Gregg said the city of East Lansing needs to follow up its new master plan with a citywide overhaul of its zoning codes, which would allow the city to prepare for more development in a rational way instead of adjusting the rules for each developer that comes along.

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