Potential is a favorite buzzword used by investors in downtown Pontiac. They point to a variety of factors when promoting the city’s potential, such as road and streetscape improvements, walkability, a vibrant nightlife and a healthy stock of historic buildings.
The Woodward Avenue Loop that surrounds downtown is being reconstructed this summer. The city is finishing a streetscape improvement project along Saginaw Street this spring. These and other examples are what city leaders point to when they say the groundwork has been laid for the downtown area to make some real strides.
“These last three years we have done all of the infrastructure and strategic planning and streetscape improvements,” says Sandy McDonald, executive director of the Pontiac Downtown Development Authority. “Now we’re ready to target a lot of the more tangible developments.”
In the mean time, what downtown Pontiac already has is starting to look much better. The city’s faÃ§ade-improvement program, which provides as much as $20,000 in grant money for a rehabbed faÃ§ade, is responsible for a good deal of that aesthetic improvement. In the last three years the facades of 19 buildings have been renovated compared to less than 10 in the 10 years before.
“The streetscape improvements were a long time coming,” McDonald says. “We don’t believe new structures and streets will bring in new businesses but we do believe it will help existing businesses stay.”
Six of those recent faÃ§ade improvements are part of projects that completely renovated their respective buildings. These in turn have helped add another 400 downtown workers in the last year. All of these little things help improve the area incrementally, breathing more life into downtown each time.
“It’s not just about putting paint on an old building,” McDonald said. “It’s about creating that vibrancy downtown.”
Diamonds in the rough
Blair J. McGowan has been steadily recreating downtown Pontiac one building at a time for a long time. He helped turn an old church into one of Metro Detroit’s most recognized music venues, Clutch Cargo’s, and is now restoring his fifth building.
“Downtown Pontiac has a treasure trove of turn-of-the-century buildings,” McGowan says. “People love old buildings with character and history. They are becoming a rarer thing as we continue to build out into the suburbs. There is a charm that can’t be duplicated.”
That fifth building is the Crofoot Building at the corner of Pike and Saginaw streets. Built in the 1830s, it is one of the city’s oldest structures. It had been vacant for years and still showing damage from a 1950s fire before McGowan and his team started rehabbing it.
He says the city is “very development friendly” and “went to bat for” him to help win a $100,000 state Cool Cities grant to rehab what McGowan calls “a great building in a great city in a great county.” He expects to finish the project this spring, turning a blighted property into two corner bars, a pool hall and a small concert venue with a 1,000-person capacity similar to St. Andrews Hall in Detroit.
McGowan is renovating the building to its 1800s appearance as much as possible. He thinks that type of character and authenticity is what makes downtown Pontiac unique and is one more example of its great potential.
“When we came here in 1989 most of the buildings in downtown Pontiac were boarded up,” McGowan says. “There were broken windows and glass everywhere. Today there are no boarded up buildings. There is a lively and growing community here.”
Leon Yulkowski’s family sees the same potential. His family, which owns Pontiac-based commercial-door manufacturer Total Door, has been investing in Pontiac since the 1950s. The Yulkowski family is now close to finishing the rehabilitation of the Waterman Center, 91 N. Saginaw St., turning it into a state-of-the-art, mixed-use building.
The building, once a Federal’s Department Store, had been vacant for several years. There were only a couple windows left in the structure when work started 18 months ago. Now it’s nearly finished and half of the 59,000 square feet of retail and office space is leased.
“We think that Pontiac is a good place to be,” Yulkowski says. “The space is under priced in the market. If you are very careful about cost and designing properly you can make a reasonable profit.”
The DDA’s McDonald likes to say the city isn’t trying to “hit home runs” when it comes to developing its downtown. But there just might be a big hit coming down the pipeline for the city.
The city is planning to make some strong pitches for future development this summer. A study on housing realities and possibilities for the downtown area is expected later this spring. The city is putting together a list ranking downtown buildings and parcels ready for development. City officials will shop these rankings and a list of economic incentives to developers this summer in hopes of spurring more rehabilitations and new development.
Other enticements include the fact that Pontiac is one of the pilot areas for the Wireless Oakland Project, which plans to provide wireless Internet access for all of Oakland County, and home to technology companies, such as MichTel and SBC. Another is that there is enough parking in the downtown area so a worker is never more than a three-and-a-half minute walk from his or her car.
“The numbers are here,” McDonald says. “We are in Oakland County. We are the seat of Oakland County. This is where M-59 and Woodward intersect.”
He also points out there is a strong small-business community and thinks bringing in a few chain stores would complement existing shops well by creating more variety. He also sees opportunities for things like a book store and a family-oriented restaurant.
McDonald argues there is enough foot traffic in downtown to support these types of new businesses already, and that they would only help the overall business climate in downtown by attracting more people. But he adds that downtown’s success is largely thanks to its small businesses that make it what it is today.
“Because there is a sense of community of looking out for each other there is also the sense that we will stick this out together,” McDonald said. “You don’t see people abandoning Pontiac. You don’t see people packing up and leaving.”