Have a business idea? One that’s new to Metro Detroit, that needs a significant chunk of local support? A venture you really want to see succeed? Chances are you are going to pursue it in Ferndale.
The inner-ring suburb has become Metro Detroit’s de facto greenhouse for small businesses, thanks to years of progressive policy decisions, community building, and a culture that cultivates an open mind. The fruits from this long-term planning and hard-decision making strategies include a vibrant downtown, a flowering cultural reputation, and growing list of locally owned businesses that range from food giant Garden Fresh Salsa to Green Light Go Publicity to Pinwheel Bakery to B. Nektar Meadery.
Ferndale’s downtown storefronts are regularly snapped up and filled with everything from bike shops to brewpubs to grocery stores. Today its occupancy stands at near capacity. People of all stripes, sizes and ages live, work and play in the city that is increasingly seen as the up-and-coming poster child for new urbanism and Richard Florida-style growth.
The 2010 census shows Ferndale becoming more diverse, with immigrant groups like Hispanics increasing their numbers in double digits, and the city maintaining its banner as the LGTB center of the region. The Ferndale Area Chamber of Commerce’s membership has increased 56 percent over the last two years, reaching 280 businesses in the face of one of the worst recessions in recent memory.
“Ferndale has had to become creative because it’s an older town,” says Jennifer Rosenberg, executive director of the Ferndale Area Chamber of Commerce. “You need to reinvent yourself and work with what you got or die off.”
Successfully reinventing oneself requires an open mind, a key ingredient that is in anything but short supply in this former blue collar community. For one, the city is arguably the most LGTB friendly community in Michigan, recently electing the state’s first openly gay mayor. The Affirmations Gay and Lesbian Community Center is a prominent community center in the heart of what locals call fabulous downtown Ferndale. In fact when this reporter casually asked a prominent local businessman who happens to be gay how he was doing, the man responded: “super fabulous.”
This socially progressive culture has bled into the business climate. Jerome Raska, chairman of the Ferndale Area Chamber of Commerce, describes it as a “people-friendly” attitude that is more likely to support moving forward than building roadblocks.
“It goes back to the fact that everybody accepts everyone for who they are,” says Jerome Raska, who co-owns a downtown flower shop, Blumz by JRDesigns, with his partner Robbin Yelverton. “I don’t know anyone who has said, ‘That’s a really stupid idea. You shouldn’t do it.’ We all work together.”
Lou Glazer, president of the Ann Arbor-based think tank Michigan Future, points out this sort of big tent inclusiveness feeds off itself, attracting yet more people. He adds that Ferndale draws local entrepreneurs and small business owners because it’s developed an organic entrepreneurial climate.
“If people don’t feel welcome they’re not going to work there or live there or start businesses there,” Glazer says. “Ultimately the places that will do the best are the places that are open to all human beings and all their varieties.”
Getting out of the way
This acceptance philosophy has also taken root in the halls of the city’s bureaucracy. Former Ferndale Mayor Craig Covey likes to say this solutions-oriented government isn’t an accident.
In general, municipalities pay lip service to their business friendliness by streamlining permitting processes and cutting other forms of red tape. Ferndale has concrete examples of the risky decisions local officials made to back up those claims. Covey, who left office in January to become an Oakland County Commissioner, points out that the city worked with new industries that scare most other municipalities, like a craft distillery.
City officials helped Rifino Valentine set up his craft distillery, the very first in the region, in Ferndale. Valentine had spent years jumping through hoops and banging his head against walls in Detroit before heading north to Ferndale. Today Valentine Vodka is on a fast-track for growth, shipping cases of vodka across the Midwest and employing six people with plans to hire another six over the next year.
“We embraced it,” Covey says. “I remember meeting him and learning about it and thinking we want him here.”
Woodward Avenue Brewers recently expanded their high-profile presence in downtown Ferndale by renovating an adjacent, old storefront into a pool hall. They wanted to call it The Loving Touch, a tongue-in-cheek reference to an infamous massage parlor that once called downtown home. It wasn’t the name city officials would have chosen, but they approved it and another successful business opened in downtown Ferndale.
“They realize the more hoops we have to jump through the more work it is for them,” says Chris Johnston, co-owner of Woodward Avenue Brewers, The Emory and The Loving Touch. “There are more important things to do.”
Vibrant to the core
Johnston is one of a sizable number of Ferndale business owners who also call the city home. In fact, it’s hard to find a Ferndale-based entrepreneur who doesn’t live in the city or within a stone’s throw of its border. A bit of local conventional wisdom states that many young entrepreneurs first come to Ferndale for its nightlife and end up staying for the cheap opportunity costs and low barriers of entry for starting as business.
“I would 100 percent agree with that statement,” says Jason Sigal, CEO of Livio Radio, a venture-backed Internet radio start-up based in Ferndale. “Nightlife is too easy of a statement. It’s more of a culture.”
Sigal is an Ohio native who lived on the East Coast before taking a job in Metro Detroit. He began sinking roots in Ferndale because it encompasses a lot of buzzwords he respects, like forward thinking, walkable and fun. The 29-year-old regularly bikes to work and partakes in the city’s nightlife.
“The coolest thing for me is Ferndale fits our style with its music and art,” Sigal says. “It fits what we’re trying to do with Livio Radio. It has a realness to it.”
Ferndale has taken a different approach to land use than the typical car-centric Metro Detroit suburb. The city employs urban practices that emphasize density, mixed-use development and localized forms of transportation like walking and bicycling. Mention words like “density” or “mixed-use development” in oft-celebrated Ann Arbor and you’re likely to encounter torch-wielding mobs of NIMBYs.
“Ferndale has been cultivating an alternative cache for 15-20 years,” Covey says. “That started when the gay community began moving here. We saw an alternative future that wasn’t about malls or five-lane highways. It’s about walkability and creating a cohesive community.”
It’s working for both established and new residents. Andy Didorosi, a 24-year-old Grosse Pointe native, turned an old warehouse near 8 Mile Road into an informal business incubator space for creative firms. Today Paper Street Motors houses 14 tenants in 22,000 square feet and Didorosi calls Ferndale home. To him, choosing to invest in Ferndale was a no-brainer considering everything he gets in return.
“It’s an odd mix of everything,” Didorosi says. “It’s hip, centrally located and still cheap. I like having a vibrant downtown so I can feed off that energy. I live above a liquor store on 9 Mile near downtown. Most of Metro Detroit is not this walkable. It’s just a good vibe.”
The people who live in and around Ferndale make that vibe viable. Local residents make up a cohesive and well-connected business support structure where the city, downtown development authority and chamber of commerce spend more time on the same page than not.
The city of small business owners also has a strong locavore movement. Many of these businesses tap each other for services, making it a point of pride to support one another. Valentine Vodka likes to brag that everything but its glass bottle comes from Michigan-based companies.
“The people of Ferndale and surrounding areas are very supportive of local businesses,” says Raska, the florist. “When the economy went down, there was a big movement to shop local. The way we support each other helps propel the businesses in Ferndale.”
It also helps make all of the above-mentioned attributes gel together and reach a tipping point for attracting more like-minded people. Whether it’s the artists and musicians snapping up homes, the do-it-yourself craft scene, the storefront theaters, or pioneer business owners, this inner-ring burb is discovering the economic and cultural joys of developing a truly creative community.
“The schools, the businesses and the community are reaching a synergy where they can do a lot together,” says Johnston, the craft brewer. “When people see the success of those they also come in and everybody feeds off of that.”
Jon Zemke is a News Editor for Metromode & Concentrate. He is also the Managing Editor of SEMichiganStartup.com. His last feature was Electronic Soul: A Q&A with Jason Huvaere of Paxahau
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An unedited version of this article previously appeared in Metromode.