Destination Downtown

It’s All About the Experience in Oakland County’s Central Business Districts

When Doug Jones decided to open a wine bar, he couldn’t have picked a better location. Wine Social, located in downtown Lake Orion, overlooks the picturesque Paint Creek and a children’s park. There’s a small concert venue behind the bar and an interesting mix of small restaurants and shops nearby.

“I really fell in love with the area,” says Jones, who opened Wine Social in 2017. “There’s a waterfall across the street, and it’s very unique here.

Downtown Lake Orion almost has an Up North feel to it. “It is a relaxing place to hang out with friends, and to me, that equaled a wine bar.”

DISTINCT PERSONALITIES

Destination downtowns can be found in every part of Oakland County — and each one has a distinct flavor.

Urban areas such as Ferndale offer a wide variety of restaurants, bars, stores and public art. Ferndale’s downtown is a short walk from many of the city’s neighborhoods, whose streets are lined with bungalows, ranches and several newer loft developments.

More recently, development in Ferndale and neighboring Pleasant Ridge has started to create new gathering spaces. The Iron Ridge Holdings project, about a mile north of Ferndale’s downtown, will include a biergarten, brewery, retail space and 75 residential units.

Just a bit northwest of Iron Ridge is downtown Royal Oak, which boasts more than 70 restaurants and 90 retail stores and salons. A popular farmers market and a wide range of summer festivals including the four-day Ford Arts, Beats & Eats are held there.

Ferndale and Royal Oak are situated along Woodward Avenue, which anchors other popular downtown areas including Berkley, Birmingham and Pontiac. Downtown Birmingham has more than 300 retailers — many of them upscale shops — and a variety of fine-dining establishments.

“There is a great entrepreneurial spirit in our communities, which serves as a catalyst for people opening unique, locally grown businesses,” says Joe Bauman, president of the Birmingham-Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce. “Our residents still desire personal attention when making purchase decisions, which is why (Birmingham’s stores) continue to be successful despite a growing pressure from the internet and large chains.”

DOWNTOWN EVOLUTION

But just as cities in Oakland County have their own unique personalities, so do their downtowns. And they continue to evolve as communities change.

Madison Heights, which in recent years has seen an increase in residents of Asian descent, has a wide variety of Asian markets and restaurants in its downtown along John R. Nearby Hazel Park, which for many years has been a bedroom community, is attracting new restaurants and bars including the acclaimed Mabel Gray. Likewise, Pontiac has been enjoying a resurgence, offering a wide variety of stores, bars and restaurants.

Smaller communities also have unique downtowns that reflect their personalities. New Hudson is a mix of independent and chain restaurants and stores. Nearby South Lyon has an old-fashioned ambiance with independent shops and restaurants including several craft breweries.

Franklin is home to art galleries, retail stores and restaurants — many of them housed in charming historic buildings. Downtown Holly has a variety of antique stores, boutique shops and a historic hotel. And downtown Ortonville reflects its rural surroundings, with small shops and restaurants tucked between hardware stores and other local merchants.

Other small communities also are making a big impact with their downtowns.

Clawson, a small city with multiple restaurants and stores, hosts a variety of events downtown including movie nights and the Great Pubkin Crawl, which stops at popular downtown bars. Berkley, bordering the Woodward corridor, has 250 small businesses and nine public murals for visitors to explore.

“Downtowns provide walking and window shopping, and people come to enjoy the atmosphere,” says Bret Rasegan, planning manager for Main Street Oakland County, a program that builds partnerships between business owners and government officials to bolster downtowns and strengthen communities’ economic base.

“There are art shows and other events — all things you don’t traditionally get in a shopping mall. “For the people who spend time in Oakland County’s downtowns, it’s all about the experience.”

This story first appeared in the 2019 edition of Oakland County Prosper magazine.