How do you make something old feel new again? Look no further for the answer to that age-old question than Vanessa Shafer, executive director of the Old Town Commercial Association.
Shafer grew up in East Lansing, and after leaving to pursue a career in the restaurant industry, she returned with her son only to discover that the community she once knew was seemingly brand new. Today, she is thrilled to be part of the continuing transformation. Shafer’s been with the Old Town Commercial Association for two years and credits the revival of Old Town to the businesses, residents and volunteers that are committed to the community and to one other.
“I grew up in East Lansing and I never thought I’d come back, but it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. We are on the precipice of something really great, and I am so thankful to be a part of that,” Shafer said. “The Old Town community was so welcoming and supportive when I started and was learning. I met the business owners that make Old Town tick, and they are an amazing group of people. Once you get to know them, it is easy to see why Old Town is doing so well; they are committed to the community, but more importantly, they are committed to each other.”
When Shafer reminisces about how far the Lansing area has come since her childhood, including the notable physical advancements and additions, she points out what she believes has changed most: The spirit of the area.
“I don’t think the changes are all physical; I think a lot of it is emotional. I think people feel a connection to this city more than they ever did before. We are scrappy, and we can appreciate the work that goes into creating areas like this. People believe in their community and believe in their neighborhood, and they want to be part of it. I don’t think that sense of pride existed before like it does now,” Shafer said.
Shafer herself is the perfect representation of that spirit. It’s easy to see when talking with her just how passionate she is about the Old Town community and how invested she is in its success and the success of Lansing as a whole.
“I like to see myself as an unofficial tour guide of Old Town. I love sharing with people what makes this area so great. I believe that it takes all the communities in Lansing working together for us to see long-term success. If REO Town doesn’t grow, or downtown doesn’t grow, we all won’t continue to grow. We are in this together, and if we work together we’ll have a wonderful opportunity to create something bigger than ourselves,” Shafer said.
Shafer’s relentless positivity about Old Town and her “people first” mentality is what makes her the perfect fit for the role of executive director at the Old Town Commercial Association. Her education in stage direction and background in the restaurant industry have given her chameleon-like traits that serve her well in her role and the ability to adapt and respond at the drop of a hat.
“Before I came here, I felt very burned out in my career, but here every day is different. It’s a whole new role, but in some ways, it is remarkably the same. When I worked in the restaurant industry people would ask me why I wasn’t working in stage direction, and I would say, ‘I kind of am, every day is a new show with new characters,’ and it was my job to figure out how to make it work. The same is true of Old Town, but in a new way,” Shafer said. “It’s nice to have the background I have and the ability to make quick decisions because things are always happening around here. I work with the public and the property owners. I love working with our volunteers and our visitors and getting to talk about Old Town. I could talk about this place for hours.”
And she’s not lying, with so many businesses, shops, restaurants, activities, and festivals happening in Old Town at any given time, it would be easy to fill hours just chatting about all the things to explore. But with so much happening, Shafer is constantly on her toes and working with the countless volunteers that make up Old Town.
“I am the only staff person, but we are able to accomplish so much in Old Town thanks to our volunteers. It’s really is a volunteer-driven community. They get together on a regular basis and make things happen. It is my job to make sure the nuts and bolts are in place and to put out any fires, but what I love (is) seeing things come together, change and evolve every year because of these amazing community members,” Shafer said.
And, as things in Old Town and Lansing continue to evolve, Shafer hopes to remain an active part of that change, while still remembering those who made all this possible in the first place.
“I think the most important part of Old Town and Lansing as a whole is that we are all doing something we love and we are doing it for the right reasons. We are working because we are passionate about this community,” Shafer said. “And we have to honor the people that came before us and those that came before me who built Old Town into what it is today by continuing to grow and work together for our community.”