Ramping Up Retail

County helps towns attract niche business

heidi paterson
Heidi Paterson opened The Toffee Store in Rochester with support from Oakland County. Photo by Jake Turskey

After being downsized several times, Heidi Paterson decided to go into business for herself. She started exploring confectionary recipes and soon found delicious success making toffee.

After a few years selling her creations at farmers markets, she opened The Toffee Store in downtown Rochester and says she wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support she found in Oakland County.

“Oakland County has the most incredible small business resources,” she says.

Paterson offers five varieties of toffee and makes it using just five ingredients sourced from Michigan-based companies. About 70 percent of her revenue is generated by fellow business owners.

“I’m proud that I can help them grow their businesses and support my own,” Paterson says. “I can’t say enough about the fellowship created by Oakland County (resources and business owners).”

Hers is one of many small businesses fueling the county’s thriving retail sector. “In today’s market, retail that is successful offers a unique value,” says Tim Colbeck, associate planner for Main Street Oakland County, the nation’s first and only countywide Main Street program.

“That’s what downtowns often have. A lot of it is driven by good customer service. It’s not just about the price — when customers come in, they want to enjoy their experience.”

Main Street Oakland County helps local governments develop downtowns while maintaining historic preservation. The program builds partnerships between business owners and government officials, works to create a positive image and helps to strengthen the city’s existing economic base. This includes supporting, expanding and recruiting new niche businesses, developing infill space and converting underused commercial space into useful property.

“When marketing our downtowns, we are trying to attract national retailers, but also working with existing independent operators to find situations for them to be successful and expand,” he says. “We know the market. We’re all in this together.”

Oakland County also offers continuing education for downtowns and stakeholders. Workshops, conferences and training are available to help grow visibility and occupancy rates.

“We’re offering a forum for all of these downtown managers to network and share best practices,” says Bret Rasegan, planning manager for Main Street Oakland County. “This becomes the broader support network for Oakland County’s downtowns.”

Oakland County is also unique in that some downtowns sit largely in their original context, Rasegan says.

Downtown Lake Orion
Downtown Lake Orion is an attraction for local residents and visitors.

“Holly and Ortonville are two examples of a commercial center within a largely rural area,” he explains. “Then, in other parts of the county, you have places such as Ferndale, Berkley, Royal Oak and Clawson, which are close together within a more urban center.”

Holly’s downtown had 100 percent occupancy in 2018.

“That’s unheard of in most places,” Colbeck says. “People make day trips to Holly, but the town also supplies the daily needs for the people who live there.”

Nearby Lake Orion is another success story, with new housing complementing entertainment venues and unique stores. And Oxford, which draws people from Genesee County, is benefiting from Oakland County’s resources. Likewise, more densely populated communities also reap the benefits of a strong support system.

“We’re always looking at what we are providing to our downtowns,” Colbeck says. “We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve.”

Written by Michelle Martin, this article originally appeared in the 2019 edition of Oakland County Prosper magazine.