Prosper Spotlight: Clawson Central

Restrooms aren’t often a point of pride for retailers, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a jauntier toilette than the one at Leon & Lulu,
its tropitone walls draped with vintage roller skates and blackboards,
complementing the quirky décor of this purveyor of home furnishings,
toys, and gifts. The 15,000-square-foot emporium formerly hailed as the
Ambassador roller rink, and, still sporting its snack bar and wooden
floor, is one of the cornerstones of downtown Clawson, a cute and unassuming 2.2 square-mile mini-city that is quickly emerging as the little city that could.

Over the last three years, more than a dozen new businesses, including Leon & Lulu, have set up shop in Clawson’s downtown, according to City Manager Richard Haberman. This fait accompli
would draw little more than a yawn elsewhere, but it’s worth noting
that the city centers on just one intersection — Main Street and 14
Mile Road. Although surrounded by the biggie burgs of Royal Oak, Troy,
and Madison Heights, Clawson (pop. 12,500) is no small fry.

“We’re
going to make ourselves highly visible,” Haberman vows. About five
years ago, Clawson revitalized its downtown development authority
(DDA), hired a consultant, and crafted ordinances and policies to lay
the groundwork for the redevelopment of its downtown and cultivation of
a business-friendly image.

He explains, “You’ve got Royal Oak,
you’ve got Troy, and you’ve got Madison Heights, and all of these
cities have reputations.  They’re large communities and they have a
wide variety of properties. In the city of Clawson, the only way, in my
mind, that we can market ourselves is we have to differentiate
ourselves.”

Accordingly, barriers to entry are lower here than
in other locales. He cites reasonable purchase or leasing costs for
downtown properties and a staff that works with new and relocating
businesses. A city planner and engineering consultant are available to
consult directly with any business or property owner. This kind of
personal service is not de riguer just anywhere, he says.

“I
can only tell you that some of the business people have indicated to me
that when they go to some of the neighboring cities, they’re met at the
counter, given a bunch of forms, told to fill them out, and then ‘We’ll
get back to you’ “. The goal, Haberman says, is to get new business in
within 30-70 days, depending on the property classification.

Cyber Clawson

The
topmost priority is marketing, he says — specifically, the city is
investing in an interactive Web 2.0 program. In addition to its fan
pages on Facebook, Clawson will be launching new city-wide and downtown
websites and mapping systems, potentially this July, Haberman adds.
Business owners will have their properties flagged and can include
general information and links to their websites. Vacant available
parcels will be featured as well. To his knowledge, Clawson will be the
first municipality in Michigan to deploy such a product.

The
city has also contracted with a firm to do bulk commercials for
businesses to put on their websites, YouTube, or even cable
programming. Joan Horton, Clawson’s acting DDA director, has just
returned to her office after visiting downtown businesses in order to
sign them on to the program.

While these considerable efforts
serve roughly 70 downtown establishments, they should attract new ones
to the city as well. “The businesses are stable. We have a lot of
long-term businesses and also a lot of new ones moving in over the last
few years,” keeping the vacancy rate at a low 11%, Horton says.

But
there’s always a wish list. There are no theaters or arts organizations
yet, and “We’d like some more retail. Restaurants and pubs kind of come
first, and then bring the people in, and now we need a little more
retail,” she figures.

Suggestion: Eat before, and after, shopping. Last month, The Metro Times anointed Clawson as the Best New Suburban Dining Destination. Da Nang, a new Vietnamese eatery, opened in the old 1928 bank building across the street from Black Lotus Brewing Company,
a microbrewery and restaurant where the outdoor seating is always full.
And Japanese grocer Noble Fish makes brilliant sushi, we hear.

In
2007, Clawson offered space to Royal Kubo, a Filipino restaurant and
karaoke bar, and “We fell in love with it,” manager Jon Campos
explains. Before manning the mic at what is consistently voted Best Karaoke Bar by The Metro Times,
diners sit street-side beneath an ornate wooden covered-porch entrance.
“It’s a new downtown, very promising, they have a lot of plans…
basically they want to develop the area,” Campos says.

After eating and shopping … and eating, walk or bike it off. Haberman
enumerates the latest bike-and-pedestrian-friendly streetscape
enhancement projects: the narrowing of Main Street to add free
on-street parking, a reduction in the speed limit from 35 to 25 mph,
brick pavers, and wider sidewalks at the four main corners.

The
city also has a grant pending with MDOT for further improvements,
including lighting and other amenities like planters and benches,
mid-block pedestrian crossings, street parking on 14 Mile Road, and
bike racks.

Bridging the path to nowhere

By
next spring, he says, “The goal is to connect our bicycling network to
our neighboring communities, so it’s a seamless movement, so if you’re
on a bike path in Madison Heights that ends at the Clawson border, the
bike path will continue. The same thing with Royal Oak and Troy,
whatever routes they have that end at our border will continue. We’re
going to try to interconnect all the ones around us so it’s a seamless
transport.”

That plan includes a ring around the downtown to
connect it with the city’s bike paths, Horton adds. And, with the wave
of a wand, bikeways appear… While nothing’s that quick-n-easy, Paul
Nielsen will have you believing.

Nielsen, a DDA board member and owner of the Wunderground Magic Shop,
one of the sole remaining brick and mortar stores on the planet for
magicians, ventriloquists, and jugglers, enjoys the location for its
foot traffic, on-street parking, and — park the bike and go back to the
table — the mélange of fine food doesn’t hurt, either.

“They’re
really good to us. They have special events, movie nights, car shows,
things that bring people into the downtown area… Almost every month,
there’s something going on,” he explains.

Other stores aren’t short on entertainment, either. FlipSide Records carries primo black vinyl disks, Warp 9‘s got the comic geek market cornered, and the Michigan Harp Center, the state’s only harp store, is right in the mix.

While
the city means business in its efforts to attract cool businesses, it’s
about as far from hipper-than-thou as you can get. Its friendly, earthy
image makes for a cult following in its own right. People can’t seem to
forget this place.

“Clawson is just a small little family
town,” Horton says, “and it’s always been that way. Kids move away from
here, and they come back and buy a house and have their kids. It’s all
about family in this town; there are connections all over. It just
makes it really nice.”

To sign up to receive Prosper in your e-mail box, click here. It’s free.


Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer and Assistant Editor at Metromode.

Photos:

Paul Nielsen, owner of Wunderground Magic Shop

Leon and Lulu

Richard Haberman, Clawson city manager

Joan Horton, Director, Clawson DDA

Royal Kubo

Paul Nielsen performs the cup and ball trick at Wunderground Magic Shop

Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D Contact Marvin here