Downtown business owners voice concerns, work toward collective solutions in Battle Creek

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BATTLE CREEK – Collaboration is key in Tiffany Blackman’s eyes.

Two years ago, recognizing a gap in the market for local shelf space for entrepreneurs, she started Bread & Basket, a public market women-of-color-owned business and products. Blackman, a small business coach, is also providing training and shared resources to local entrepreneurs.

“Without collaboration, you automatically have built-in limitations,” Blackman explained on a recent Monday afternoon at her boutique-style store at 38 E. Michigan Ave.

Blackman is one of several downtown Battle Creek business owners who hold regular discussions about downtown, from its problems to ways businesses can collaborate to attract visitors and move the area forward.

“When I started two years ago, there wasn’t a group that was talking about how downtown was going to work for all of us as (business) owners, for our customers, for parking, for events (and more),” Blackman said. “Being able to stay in the process that way is a really useful tool … I feel like we have a long way to go because we’re so used to putting our heads down and doing a good job of running our business. Even having a regular meeting is hard because not everyone can come to that regular meeting at some point, but The good part is that we are making time for those conversations.

The “Downtown Chamber of Commerce” began to take shape last fall. Hearing many downtown business owners voice similar concerns, Battle Creek natives and event organizers Justin Andert (Color the Creek) and Jeremy Andrews (Penetrator Events) decided to take action.

“I’m very invested in wanting to develop downtown as much as possible, I have a passion for that and I know Jeremy does too,” Andert said. “It made sense to come together and see if we could build something.”

“We realized that no neighborhood association, neighborhood planning council for downtown, or any group like that came together to use their voice to improve their lives,” Andrews added. We started bringing businesses together.

The migration eventually led to monthly gatherings of downtown business owners. Last year, more than 30 downtown businesses were involved in the discussion, with Andert and Andrews relaying relevant issues to city staff.

The discussions created new connections and partnerships between downtown businesses, including joint marketing/promotion of businesses on social media.

“That’s why we want to bring people together, to show them that they have a common voice, a common power,” Andert said. “Let’s make sure everyone has a seat at the table if they want it, and let’s encourage people to realize that they have the power to make things happen.”

A consistent thread that emerged at the first meetings of the Downtown Business Association was a perceived lack of communication among business owners regarding road closures, construction projects and major events.

For years, the City of Battle Creek’s Office of Small Business Development has sent a weekly email blast to city businesses and property owners announcing upcoming events, construction projects and other matters of public interest, according to city Development Director John Hart.

It’s no secret that downtown business owners are busy with their day-to-day responsibilities, but Hart believes the Downtown Chamber of Commerce’s monthly meetings help keep everyone on the same page.

“When these guys meet every month, Justin and Jeremy continue to talk to the team about the information that we send them every week, but they deliver it in person. It makes a difference,” he said. “The information was there, (but) this is another more personal touch … just to remember it all.”

Hart has been meeting with Andert, Andrews and other event planners in the city almost every week for the past five or six years, collaborating to launch events like Qui The Creek, The Big Cheese and Winter Wonderland, among others. The Downtown Chamber of Commerce, he said, is only building on those established partnerships.

“We’re starting to rely more on the relationships than trying to do it as one agency,” Hart explained. “That’s what we’ve been trying to do for the last eight or nine years, create this space where people are in control of their own destiny, basically. If you want to do an event, then let’s do an event. If you want to do it. OK, let’s work with our partners (and to be fulfilled).

Discussions around downtown parking have also yielded results, with the city extending the free parking limit in rural areas from two to three hours.

“It feels like it’s all part of a bigger plan that’s starting to get crazy,” Hart said of the Downtown Business Association. “We’re excited to help people get organized and assert themselves and grow the downtown they envision.”

In addition to the monthly meetings, he said he and Andert plan to spend more time with businesses individually in the coming year, having one-on-one conversations to encourage collaboration between business owners on various fronts.

“When you develop a relationship with your neighbors, you learn to love your neighbors more,” Andrews said, adding that “we’re just talking in the wheelhouse” about the ongoing conversation and downtown revitalization. He said the Office of Small Business Development, Kellogg Arena and the city, among others, play an equal role in all of this.

Blackman remembers a time 10 years ago when half of the downtown buildings looked empty. That’s not the case now.

“If you haven’t been here lately, you haven’t been here,” she said. “My highest hope is that the owners find enough time to build a common theme in our downtown area and bring that to the community.”

Contact reporter Grayson Steele at gsteele@battlecreekenquirer.com



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