Main Street Pontiac is spearheading efforts for transformational change in downtown Pontiac

Main Street programs across America exist to revitalize local economies, preserve historic commercial districts, and build thriving neighborhoods and communities. Launched almost 40 years ago, Main Street America helps to revitalize older and historic commercial districts that were then threatened by the emergence of shopping malls and big box retailers.
Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson saw the value of the Main Street program when he launched Main Street Oakland County 18 years ago, the nation’s first county-based Main Street program. It remains the only countywide Main Street coordinating program in the United States.
“Main Street Oakland County is one of our most successful programs,” Patterson said. “Our Main Street communities have generated about $790 million of investment since we began the program, establishing more than 1,100 businesses and creating more than 7,600 jobs. The economic impact on our communities is undeniable.” 

Main Street Oakland County has its own staff, budget, and priorities separate from the 25 individual Main Street communities located within Oakland County, but it also works closely with and provides technical support and services to those communities, from traditional historic commercial corridors like Ferndale and Hazel Park to emerging downtowns like Lathrup Village and Wixom.

Following the same “Four Points” model that is fundamental to the Main Street Approach, Main Street Oakland County focuses on economic vitality, design, promotion, and organization. Each community has unique needs, and Main Street Oakland County connects them to resources, provides trainings, and offers a variety of support, regardless of how fast or slow they are able to move forward.

John Bry, principal planner for Main Street Oakland County, says that one reason the county was proactive in launching its own Main Street program almost two decades ago was because Patterson realized that having these local economic centers made good business sense in terms of economic health. They have a uniqueness, a sense of place that is attractive to people who want to live and work in those communities. It also makes these communities more competitive in the “talent wars” – people want to live in areas with vibrant downtowns, recreational amenities, and a strong cultural scene, making these kinds of community revitalization efforts integral to attracting and retaining talent and thereby maintaining a healthy economy.

While Main Street Oakland County oversees 25 distinct individual Main Street programs, one in particular stands out for its unique challenges as well as its commitment to long-term development strategies: downtown Pontiac.

Previously overseen by a downtown development authority, Downtown Pontiac is now a nonprofit business association, which Main Street Oakland County assisted them in forming. It took about a year and a half, Bry says, but now the newly-established 501(c)(3) has a very talented, dynamic, engaged, and diverse board that is reflective of the community and committed to downtown Pontiac’s success.

Main Street Oakland County also assists with the implementation of Flagstar Bank’s Big Idea Grant Program in Pontiac, which supports business startups and expansion throughout the city. Main Street Oakland County also worked with Flagstar to earmark $10,000 to support a façade grant program for businesses in downtown Pontiac to improve the physical appearance of the downtown.

Pontiac is the first community in Michigan to participate in Main Street America’s new UrbanMain program, which recognizes that the needs and challenges of an urban community are much different than those of a more suburban or rural community. The national organization developed four pillars of transformation that Main Street Pontiac is using to transform downtown Pontiac: arts and culture, technology, health and wellness, and the maker/knowledge workers economy.

Downtown Pontiac is already making significant strides in each of these areas. In arts and culture, the Flagstar Strand Theatre and the PLAT both opened last year, and the first-ever Pontiac Arts & Culture Crawl held in May was a big success. Each fall, the nationally-renowned Erebus haunted attraction is a huge draw to the city, and the city plans to capitalize on its popularity by transforming Pontiac into a “Halloween town,” in much the same way other historic downtowns become “Christmas towns” in the winter.

As a technology hub, Pontiac is already surrounded by engineers with the General Motors Global Propulsion Systems headquarters and the world headquarters of FCA on its peripherals, and now companies like MadDog Technology and the startup-focused co-working space Pontiac Tribe and are opening up offices in downtown Pontiac’s affordable historic buildings. With new food and beverage businesses like Exferimentation Brewing and Fillmore 13 Brewery also opening up, downtown Pontiac is also becoming more attractive to tech and startup companies for the lifestyle amenities it can offer their employees, who might want to grab a beer after work just steps away from their offices. The first-ever Phoenix Derby Races, coming up in August, is another way to capitalize on both the technology and the arts and culture pillars.

As far as health and wellness, Pontiac already has a hospital – McLaren Oakland– smack-dab in the middle of its downtown, while the Clinton River bike trail cuts through much of the city. Main Street Pontiac has also launched a weekly run club, and the Healthy Pontiac coalition of healthcare providers, government leaders, local businesses, and residents continues to drive new initiatives and idea-sharing around effective strategies to promote healthy lifestyles and improve access to healthy foods in Pontiac. 

Bry says there is also a strong knowledge-based workforce of “makers” in Pontiac: businesses like upholsterers, stained glass studios, and recording studios. Bry notes that there is also an opportunity to infuse that maker economy more into the downtown and further develop those maker-based industries.

Main Street Pontiac has identified those transformation pillars and is using the four-point Main Street Approach to start “chipping away” at specific transformational initiatives outlined in a guiding work plan document they are developing.

Now, Bry says, they need allies.

“It’s going to be a big effort over the next year to bring all those things into alignment and get that work plan in place to continue developing partnerships by saying, ‘Here is our road map; here is where we’re going” with specific plans. We can take that document to FCA headquarters and say, ‘You’re just a couple of miles from our downtown, here is everything we’re doing that might be of interest to you. Your workers would love to have somewhere downtown to go,'” Bry explains.  

He continues, “If you want downtown Pontiac to evolve you either have to pony up or shut up. Royal Oak, Ferndale, Rochester – [those downtowns] didn’t start out that way. They didn’t fall out of the sky like that. All Main Street communities followed the same formula in getting the right partners around the table and being bold to make [revitalization] happen faster. Once the right foundation is built, then they can start doing the work, but you have to have the right foundation or else everything else won’t fall into place.”