517 Living: Local woman turned her curiosity about Lansing into a brand
Rachel Greco, Lansing State Journal Dec. 29, 2018
MASON - Five years ago Sarah Pierce came to terms with the reality that she was building a life in the greater Lansing area, but still knew very little about its hidden gems.
Pierce, 34, longed to find greater Lansing's perfect hole-in-the-wall art gallery, most comfortable coffee shop and its best music venues. "Where are the hot spots in this town?" she often thought.
On the weekends the Mason native made up her mind to go out and try something new. Then she would struggle to find it.
"I’d be like, ‘You know, I want to do something really cool,' and it would be an impulsive, spur-of-the-moment kind of thing, but then I wouldn’t really know where to find that really cool thing," Pierce said.
Today, she's put that curiosity to good use.
Pierce is the creator and sole administrator of 517 Living, a free online events calendar utilized by hundreds of people, and 517 Living Community, a Facebook group with nearly 21,000 members. There's also a Twitter account, 517 Living.com, with more than 6,000 followers.
Pierce offers all three as a resource, an equal opportunity for local businesses and organizations to promote what they offer and for fellow area residents to seek out what's cool in the 517 area code.
After all, you can't properly experience greater Lansing without connecting with others, Pierce said.
“That’s how you get to love the place that you live in, and have pride in it," she said.
'I knew it was important'
At 517 Living's web page you'll find everything from upcoming theater and music performances to a comprehensive list of food trucks and restaurants in and around Lansing with hot links to the businesses' own websites.
Area residents can subscribe to the 517 Living calendar, and businesses and organizations can add their events to it. The calendar also offers custom views, so residents can see only the types of events they choose to.
Pierce designed and decided to start it in late 2015, an offshoot of a 517 Living Twitter account that offered some of the same information.
The Twitter account gained several thousand followers quickly.
So Pierce decided to organize the information it offered on a website. Pierce was working a full-time job then, and she didn’t intend to make money off the venture.
“I was kind of just doing it because I knew it was important,” she said. “I didn’t really have a defined end goal in mind. I just said, ‘I’m going to go with this and adapt and if I try something and it doesn’t work I’ll go a different way. If it doesn’t work I’ll try something else.”
The website grew slowly, so Pierce turned to social media to extend its reach.
In July of 2016 she created the 517 Living Community Facebook group. She invited friends and strangers to join and encouraged them to do the same. She spent her own money on prizes for members who invited others to join and for business owners who began using the 517 Living website.
Pierce encouraged members to post their events and groups to the 517 Living website too. She also encouraged local business owners to market their services and products within it – for free.
“They can be as creative as they want,” Pierce said.
Some businesses offer giveaways on the site and others just post about events they have coming up.
Residents chime in on the Facebook group, seeking recommendations for everything from dentists and gyms, to restaurants and art classes. Diverse beliefs are welcomed, and so is local news. Pierce said they spark interesting conversation.
But negative posts aren’t allowed. It’s a “good vibes only” group, Pierce said.
“I have grandmas who will post, ‘My grandson’s coming to visit this weekend. Does anybody have ideas of something cool I can do with them?’”
For her part, Pierce offers introduction threads, on which members are encouraged to tell others about themselves. Those introductions can lead to something, she said.
“You never know where a small connection can lead,” Pierce said. “It can open up a whole little world in their lives they wouldn’t have opened otherwise.”
Growing 517 Living
517 Living's aim wasn’t just to promote activities in and around Lansing. Pierce wants each platform to promote community engagement.
The online calendar 517 Living was created in 2014 as a Twitter account that quickly gained a following. Today there's a web page and Facebook group as well. (Photo: Courtesy photo)
Henry Kwok said Pierce's creation has helped him do that, but he's also been able to market his restaurant, Henry's Place in Okemos.
Kwok opened the eatery two years ago and said 517 Living offers him a valuable way to reach customers. When he joined its Facebook group there were 10,000 members. It's more than doubled in size since.
"Sarah’s page is a free platform that really helped me putting my business on the map without spending a lot of money," Kwok said. "She’s created a very useful tool in the social media arena."
James Brunt, founder of Lansing Area Home Revitalization, a company renovating homes in the Lansing area, agreed.
"It's a tremendous resource," he said. "It’s really given us the opportunity to blast information to the masses."
Pierce said 517 Living hasn't reached its full potential yet, but it's growing.
The web page makes some money, but not much, Pierce said. A handful of businesses advertise on the web page and patrons can contribute some funds to the page.
Pierce stopped working full-time in July. She works part-time now, and devotes a lot of time to both the 517 Living web page and social media off shoots.
In the last two years she's hosted two in-person gatherings for 517 Living members. The events, at Henry’s Place in Okemos and Aladdin’s Express in downtown Lansing, offered music, networking and vendors. Several hundred people attended, and Pierce is planning another event soon.
“I know this could be way, way bigger,” she said.