John Bry knew a good deal about Oakland County long before he ever set foot within its borders. That's because he has been working in the Main Street program for a while now–and the county has a bit of a reputation within the nationwide program.
That's because Oakland County is the first and only county in the United States to officially join Main Street, which is a program if the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Main Street uses historic preservation and placemaking techniques to drive economic development and revitalization in traditional downtowns and commercial districts.
Bry first started working in the Main Street program over two decades ago. It's a career that has taken him from his native Auburn, Indiana to towns in Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, and Florida. He's left the Main Street program for other jobs and academic degrees over the years, but he's always come back to it. And now his love for historic preservation and downtowns has drawn Bry to yet another town and another state; he was recently hired as Program Coordinator of Main Street Oakland County.
For Bry, it's an opportunity to finally enact some of the ideas he's developed over the years. These include building a digital library of preservation and development resources, establishing downtown entrepreneur zones, and creating a county-wide funding pool for historic preservation efforts and projects. And with Oakland County's strong embrace of the Main Street program, he's confident he'll accomplish these goals.
"Some of these things have been ideas I've had in my head for a long time, but Oakland County has been receptive and progressive enough to say, you know what, we'll give it a try. And maybe in my past careers, I haven't been in a situation where they've been totally supportive," says Bry. "So the fact that Oakland County is interested is great."
It was Bry's great grandmother who set the seeds for a fully realized passion for historic preservation. Bry grew up on the family farm outside of Auburn, Indiana, in an old farmhouse that was part log cabin. His great-grandmother would take a young Bry on trips to explore the local cemeteries—a pastime he still has a passion for today. The cemetery trips were a result of his family starting the local monuments company in Auburn a hundred years earlier, he says. After the trips to the cemetery, Bry's great grandmother would show him old family photographs and tell him stories.
Bry's parents also contributed to his love for history. They were always working on the family farmhouse as well as an old Victorian house, he says. As a kid, his parents would take him on historic home tours. Left to his own devices, Bry would explore the area, poking around old abandoned houses and buildings. He even found the arches to the now long-gone building that housed his family's monuments company. Bry would go on to reconstruct the arches and donate them to a local senior living home. On one of his returns to Auburn, Bry purchased a Victorian home on the edge of downtown. It was dilapidated and under threat of demolition, and he's since restored it.
When Bry left for college and decided to study historic preservation, he says he was surprised to learn that his passion could become a career. He's become an advocate for the practice, demonstrating to communities that historic preservation isn't just about saving old buildings but also a way to boost local economies.
"It can be a challenge sometimes—and especially in America, we don't make it easy to rehab historic buildings and places—but I think everyone, at the end of the day, when they look at a completed project in their community or neighborhood, they say, I'm glad we saved that," says Bry.
In his new position, Bry says he hopes to usher in a new generation of the Main Street Oakland County program, one that engages all 22 member communities by being as inclusive as possible and always open to new ideas. There are eight guiding tenets of the Main Street program, and he's added one more: Flexibility. It's about finding a common ground where all stakeholders are allowed to play a role. Be you, he says. Maybe you have your own way of getting somewhere—at least you got there.
"I don't have all the answers; I don't have all the best ideas. But when you start to bring in all these other people in to be inclusive, some really cool stuff starts," says Bry. "That's when the magic happens."
Name and title: John Bry, (CMSM)-Certified Main Street Manager, Program Coordinator Main Street Oakland County Program and Principal Planner
Year you started in Main Street: First official full-time gig, 1995
Interesting job before Main Street: I would have to say that would be between detasseling seed corn a couple of summers in Indiana, and operating a full-sized replica of a historic canal boat called the General Harrison in Ohio.
What's your favorite era of historic architecture: That's a tough one. I've come to appreciate Mid-Century Modern from the 50s and 60s, but still fall back to early styles from the early and mid 19th century with styles such as Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, and Italianate as some of my favorite periods.
What's your favorite restaurant(s) in your new home of Oakland County: I enjoy local Mom and Pop places that are sort of off the grid for most people. Sorry to say I have not gotten out to many of them yet with bouncing back and forth to Auburn (my hometown) about every other weekend to check in on my grandma (She turned 90 in Oct). BUT, so far the Omega Grub Station in Pontiac and the Liberty in Pontiac are a couple that have become favorites for me. Looking forward to exploring much more as I get to know my new community.