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Meet Royal Oak's new Downtown Manager

It’s mid-morning at The Office coffee shop in downtown Royal Oak, and Sean Kammer has not yet had his breakfast.
 
It’s par for the course, he explains, as he digs into a bagel and cream cheese. As the city’s first Downtown Manager in many years, he has a full schedule getting to know the local business owners, associations, and elected officials.
 
The restaurant scene on Main Street is thriving. But retail, especially along Washington, is faltering. Royal Oak has lost two major retail anchors in recent years; American Apparel in 2016, which is now vacant, and Barnes and Noble, which left in 2014 and is now a Buffalo Wild Wings. And with new office developments taking shape, the city faces a sort of identity crisis—is it fated to develop an upscale character, or can it retain some if its funky bohemian past?
 
Four weeks into the new job, Kammer, who prior served as Assistant City Administrator in Lathrup Village, took some time to sit with Metromode to share his thoughts about what’s next for one of metro Detroit’s oldest downtowns.
 
The conversation is edited for clarity.
 
Metromode: Tell us about your new role. What are your responsibilities?
 
Kammer: The prior person in this role was focusing mostly on events, When I was hired on, they wanted me to focus more on things like retail attraction, retention, to function as the eyes and the ears of the DDA. I think what they mean by that is to build relationships with the business community and all of the stakeholders down here just so the DDA is more informed of how their projects and programs are affecting the downtown. I'm tasked to try to try to build some consensus and work together and move forward in one direction.
 
Metromode: Royal Oak’s Downtown Manager position has been vacant for some years. Why fill that role now? What's the current need the city sees?
 

Kammer: A few years ago there was a downtown task force that was created. They came up with a number of objectives. One of those was to get more economic diversity here in the downtown. They knew that it was thriving in terms of restaurants, but retail was struggling and still is. They wanted to get more office users here in the downtown. They wanted to diversify that to add some resiliency to the economy.
 
Metromode: Is there adequate office space in downtown?
 
Kammer: They're building it right now. There are two projects. One is currently in construction, and one has just been approved. Those two projects alone actually met their goal of 180,000 square feet of office space.
 
One is the Etkin project. That is next to the post office on 11 Mile. You can see it right now; it's that big steel frame that's going up currently. The next one is going to be the Royal Oak City Center project. That's got a lot of facets to it, and it includes an office building that will be constructed in the parking lot in front of city hall.
 
Metromode: What's your vision for retail? How can it be revived?
 
Kammer: I think a lot of the retail is trying to change, to downsize and focus on experience, to stay relevant. For example, Barnes and Noble is working on a concept store right now. They're smaller stores; I think they're only like 15 percent of the original footprint. It's more experiential. They give you wine. There's the Amazon Go stores that aren't online yet. Nordstrom's is in this same kind of theme; making it more experiential. What kind of things can't you deliver online? It's nice to see that they're down-scaling the stores. In downtown Royal Oak most of our available sites are 5,000 square feet or less.
 
Metromode: How do you compete with what's happening in Detroit? Do you try to?
 
Kammer: It's difficult. I think there are two schools of thought. I'm still trying to make up my mind. I think they both have some merit.
 
There’s the regional perspective of Detroit's doing well, so all of the suburbs are inevitably going to be doing better. I think it's going to make the region more competitive on a global scale.
 
Then you get down into the micro-scale of where's everybody going on a Friday and Saturday night. Are they going to go to Royal Oak or are they going to go to Midtown? I think that's where you start to see some competition.
 
Metromode: What about residential in downtown? What's happening with that?
 
Kammer: That has been happening for some years when they build the Fifth building and then all of the other lofts on 11 Mile. There's an additional project that's going to be residential and that's going to be the 696 / 10 Mile and Main Street area on the south side of the downtown.
 
Metromode: What do you hope to be able to accomplish in your first 6-12 months in this job?
 
Kammer: I'd like to bring in a retail anchor, something that would catalyze additional smaller retail.
 
Metromode: What are your thoughts about the old Royal Oak vibe being more of a funky, bohemian type of place? Can it retain that character as it develops?
 
Kammer: I'd love to recapture a lot of that innovation and imagination that it had back when I was in high school, back in the early 2000s. I was in Clarkston, but on weekends we drove all the way from Clarkston to Royal Oak just because of the concentration of the thrift stores and the record stores. There wasn't a community around that had all of that stuff in Oakland County. We came all the way down here for it.
 
Over the years as Royal Oak has gotten trendier and trendier, and attracted more and more investment dollars, it priced a lot of that DIY entrepreneurial spirit out of the market. I'd like to recapture a lot of that.
 
Metromode: How do you do that in this higher-rent environment? Is it possible?
 
Kammer: I think so. I don't know if you could locate them exactly in the urban core. That's why I was thinking about how there should be a little Midtown in Royal Oak to encourage entrepreneurs where the rent's a little lower. It would be along 10 Mile, maybe Fourth Street. I think at some point it could end up being outside the DDA district. It would be outside my jurisdiction, but I'd like to see something like that come back to recapture a lot of that soul that Royal Oak had. We still have some holdouts; Lost and Found Vintage, Rail and Anchor, and UHF, the record shop.
 
Metromode: You have an interesting challenge. You want to try to recapture some of that cool downtown Royal Oak that you remember, but based on the reality that rents are higher, you're sort of stuck between Ferndale and Birmingham. Which way is is the city going to go?
 
Kammer: Right. In fact, it's been described to me that right now Royal Oak is trying to find its identity. We have this office building being constructed, so it's definitely bringing in larger companies. We're gonna get a daytime office crowd. There's a hotel being built. A lot of investment is coming into the community But it still has that cool, trendy, DIY thrift shop vibe that a lot of people still want to maintain. The construction is pulling it in the other direction. Is it gonna be more of like a Birmingham? Maybe. Is there room for that? Is there a third way?
 
I like to believe there's a third way. I think there’s some sort of synthesis that can be achieved. And I think the DDA can maybe help with that. We talked about incentives and trying to foster a lot of these businesses that you wouldn't ordinarily see heavily invested in an urban core.
 
Could you very intelligently recruit businesses into certain sections of the downtown where you could help balance out some of those rents? The higher rents area where you could bring in retail anchors, and then garden entrepreneurs in one section of the downtown that would be more affordable? I think it's uncharted territory right now.

Nina Misuraca Ignaczak is Metromode's managing editor. Follow her on Twitter @ninaignaczak or on Instagram at ninaignaczak.
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