Downtown Flint seeing dramatic increase in retail businesses

FLINT, Michigan — Notice anything different about downtown Flint lately? After 15 years of targeted investment and development, there has been a dramatic (and long sought after) shift in the last year or so.
Downtown is experiencing exponential growth in retail.
It was just less than a year ago that GoodBoy Clothing took on its second-floor retail space in the packed 500 block of South Saginaw Street. Then, the clothing-home goods-flowers-kids-fun stuff boutique Shift opened with lots of fanfare and fandom in the Capitol Theatre in May. Just last week, a retail space with 13 pop-up shops and a convenience store debuted in the Dryden Building.
Add to that recent additions including Bedrock Apparel in the Capitol, Peace Barn Vintage Shop in the Patterson Building, Brush Alley Skateshop around the corner, and Flint Trading Co. just down Saginaw Street.
“There is a real buzz about Flint. More people are venturing downtown and, quite frankly, they are falling in love with the vibe,” said Tim Herman, CEO of the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce.
Downtown Flint in the last 15 years has undergone a dramatic transformation, but successful growth has mostly focused on food and drink or office and residential spaces — with the Flint Farmers’ Market as a notable (and massive) exception.

The Flint Farmers’ Market marked the first major retail development downtown in decades when it opened at its First Street location in 2014. It remains the largest retail location and a huge draw on the three days a week it is open. 

Other retail additions had been few and far between, but have included the likes of Sutorial bootmakers in Buckham Alley, Healthy Dollar Holla convenience store on First Street, and  Chrysa Studio clothing design and alterations on Saginaw Street. They added to Saginaw Street staples such as the famous Paul’s Pipe Shop, J. London Apparel and Mad Hatter.

Retail was an often talked about, but rare commodity downtown. 
Compare that to the development within the Dryden Retail space alone. It is the new retail home of Skyward Clothing, Flint Trading Company, Julie Abbott Art, Red Fox Outfitters, Article One eyewear, Shea Lavelle  beauty products, Kalm Clothing, Bedrock Apparel, Sutorial, The Machine Shop merchandise, Detroit Muscle, GoodBoy Clothing and Glam Box Boutique — plus a revival of the Ground Floor Market convenience store.

These are largely an expansion of currently existing businesses that are choosing to make downtown Flint a shopping option. 
The advancement of retail is an important one, says Meegan Holland, vice president of the Michigan Retailers Association. Retail directly impacts the local economy, adds jobs, boosts other local businesses, and creates a greater sense of vibrancy.
“It’s meaningful. If you keep your shopping dollars in Flint, it is totally going to help your community,” Holland says.
Plus, shopping is fun and adds to a community’s ambiance with beautiful storefronts and unique displays. Holland calls retailers “some of the most creative people I know.”
Sitting at the corner of Second and Harrison streets, Shift was the first retail space in the renovated Capitol Theatre. Owned and operated by women, it is the epitome of a downtown boutique.

“I’ve worked downtown for 19 years and I’ve been waiting and waiting for there to be some place to get a gift or pick something up on the way to someone’s home for dinner or even a new dress to wear,” said Shannon Easter White, co-owner of Shift. 

It is one of those entrepreneurial ventures that White mulled for years. She had thought about creating a retail side of her firm Funchitecture, which provides both architecture and interior design for clients. 

Then came the renovated Capitol Theatre. 

And its 25,000 square feet of office and retail space. 

“I am a big believer that downtown is more than just Saginaw Street.” White said. 

With the prime corner location still available, White joined forces with co-owner Heidi McAra to launch Shift by knocking down three interior masonry walls, bringing Meghan Hoffman and her business Floradora onboard to share the space, and developing a business plan that combines retail with entertainment including classes, special events, and sometimes wine.
The store — which brands itself as a “fashion forward retail experience” — opened in May, about six months after the Capitol Theatre’s grand opening. 

Along with the expansion of retail, the last year has seen the addition of Eight Ten Nail Bar and the speakeasy X in the Wade Trim building and the addition of office space for 40 small businesses in the Ferris Wheel. 

And, more is on the way. The $19 million housing development at the former YWCA location in downtown Flint also will feature additional retail space. And, the state of Michigan announced Tuesday a $200,000 grant to support the restoration of $1.4 million restoration of the former Perry Drug building on Saginaw Street at Second Street, which will include six retail spaces including Elga Credit Union.

The more the merrier, says White. 

“I think the importance is that you have to give people choices. In the beginning, people were only coming downtown to work. Now,  we’ve given them a reason to stay downtown,” White says.

Read more articles by Marjory Raymer.