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Cultivating Community through Commerce

Like many college graduates from mid-Michigan, Samantha Le eventually moved away after finishing her studies, landing in Chicago for a few years. Now that the 2011 Michigan State University alum is back in Lansing, she’s looking to bring home a few more of her peers. 

Le and Carson Patten, a 2019 MSU graduate, are part of a team at Greater Lansing real estate powerhouse Martin Commercial Properties that’s aiming to build a younger, stronger community through commerce. 

“Our biggest goal here is to bring businesses into Lansing and mid-Michigan so we can retain the millennial workforce and attract those who moved away,” Le said, adding that the under-40 cohort consists of people with “very similar stories to Carson and me.” 

Reversing the ‘Brain Drain’ 

Samantha Le and Carson Patten

The team wants to see the Lansing market grow. 

“And to do that we want to see top concepts in this market that we see in larger markets, and we want to make Lansing a cool place to live so it attracts younger talent and younger professionals to stay here after they graduate,” said Patten. 

“MSU graduates — typically after they graduate — they go to different markets; they go to bigger cities like Chicago or Grand Rapids or wherever in the country,” causing what’s often referred to as a “brain drain” in mid-Michigan, Patten added. “We want to play a part in keeping some of the talent local and within this community.” 

Patten and Le’s team has already begun doing just that by luring new-to-here brands like Crumbl Cookies bakery and fitness retailer Hotworx. They are also looking to help fill two of the largest mixed-use developments in the area: the $260 million Red Cedar project and the $63 million Haslett Village Square. 

“We know what our generation wants,” Patten said, adding that his team is taking a “boots-on-the-ground approach going after retailers we think would be successful here and that would attract the younger crowd to stay here. It’s more than just putting a sign up and waiting on phone calls. It’s actively targeting groups we think would be a good fit, meeting them in-person and pitching them on coming to Lansing.” 

Millennials Taking the Lead 

The team’s target generations are no longer in the backseat when it comes to driving regional economies. 

“Millennials right now are the largest generation in the workforce, and I think our relatability to this population, to this new wave — just being on the verge of being the next leaders, entrepreneurs, executives — I think that’s really helping set us apart in that we all have the same goal of shaping our community,” Le said. 

Critical to the team’s success is identifying the right retailers to lure. That’s because younger shoppers are looking for more than just things to buy. There is rising demand for what is called “experiential” retail, where shoppers get first-person experiences and amenities along with products. 

“The way that people shop isn’t the same way people shopped 20 years ago,” said Le. “They want to experience retail in a different way, and so we’re adapting to that.” 

How the team is tackling such challenges is also a differentiator. 

“The commercial real estate industry, as a whole, is traditionally older,” Le added. “We see this as a huge opportunity for us. We think we have a real innovative approach to deal-making and creative strategies.” 

For instance, their team creates short-form video newsletters for monthly distribution that highlight the latest trends and happenings in commercial real estate. 

“We think this type of information distribution is a really fresh take on what we’re seeing,” Le said. 

Carson Patten and Samantha Le
Carson Patten (left) and Samantha Le (right)

New Tech Equals New Tools 

The team is also utilizing tech to more effectively and efficiently do the things real estate agents have always done. 

“Technology is constantly advancing, and we need to really understand and utilize these tools to keep up with rapidly fluctuating market trends,” Le said. “For example, we’re seeing huge advancement in AI (artificial intelligence) capability.” 

While AI and other digital tools are still evolving, they are important assets moving forward to better deliver speed and efficiency in sharing and making sense of information. 

“We’re seeing more data than ever that tracks consumer habits, and these metrics are really helping us understand what retailers need to be successful in different areas,” Patten said. 

The challenge facing the team is more than just attracting the next cool thing. There’s a bit of: “What comes first, the chicken or the egg?” at play here, according to Le. 

“Demographic data doesn’t yet support some retailers expanding in a smaller market like Lansing,” Le said. “We need population density to get popular retailers to enter our market, but we need popular retailers to attract population density and a millennial workforce to come live here in Lansing. That’s really the largest challenge we’re seeing today, but Carson and I are up for the challenge.”