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Downtown Kalamazoo Eyes Post-Pandemic Future

Leona Larson

Will cities go back to what they looked like in 2019 now that pandemic restrictions have been lifted? Some Kalamazoo businesses say they hope the future looks bright.

COVID-19 cleared streets and closed businesses in many of Michigan’s cities last year and the economic toll may take years for some of them to recover. But the outlook is rosier in Kalamazoo, where new businesses and housing options are positive signs for the city’s future.

Andrew Haan is the president of the Downtown Kalamazoo Partnership. He says 2020 was a "very challenging" year for downtown Kalamazoo; but while 11 storefront businesses closed during the pandemic, Haan says 16 new stores opened.

“We’re actually at a net gain right now. We had over 150 residential units that were completed during the pandemic, with a hundred percent occupancy on those. So, the market to live in a walkable, compelling urban space is still as strong as it’s ever been.”

Haan says grants, incentives, and community support get most of the credit for keeping local businesses afloat.

“Surprisingly, many of our downtown businesses in the 2020 holiday season, in the middle of the pandemic, did better than their 2019 numbers. Despite the rise in online shopping, we saw a really, really strong connection to local small business from the community,” Haan says.

Credit Leona Larson / WMUK
Climb Kalamazoo owner Phil Grimm and friend

Phil Grimm owns Climb Kalamazoo, a rock-climbing gym in downtown Kalamazoo. He says the businesses that survived did so because of strong community support.

“So many people from the community have reached out to us, and said, ‘What can we buy from you,’ to try to support us through the winter, even when we were closed," Grimm says. “That was just really amazing to see people from the community who were concerned about the sustainability of our business to reach out like that. That was cool!”

Sitting outside the gym with his dog on a recent Saturday, Grimm said he’s seen more foot traffic, and more dog walkers, than ever before. “In just the past eight weeks it's really opened up with people just stopping in to check out the gym, and pedestrians on the mall. I think that’s definitely going to continue through the summer as more people are vaccinated, and more people are comfortable getting out and about, and it’s fun to see everyone’s faces again.”

Now that pandemic restrictions have been lifted, businesses in downtown Kalamazoo are hoping to get back to normal as quickly as possible. To celebrate and promote the city's central business district, the Downtown Kalamazoo Partnership has more than 60 events planned this summer, more than double the number of events it put on in 2020.

“It’s a very different look than you would have seen a year ago when we had a much smaller suite of programing,” Haan says. “Now that we are seeing some really high rates of vaccination and all the restrictions have been lifted, we’re back to full court press on our events.”

There's more information about free events like Saturday’s “Music on the Mall,” “Workout Wednesday,” “Beats on Bates” on Wednesday evenings, or “Shop 2nd Saturdays,” at the Downtown Partnship website.

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