Living in Pontiac isn’t for everybody. But then again, living in Ann Arbor, Taylor or Troy isn’t for everyone either.
Some people see blight when they look at a vacant storefront, empty lot or old house in need of some TLC. Those aren’t the people for Pontiac. The ones who would enjoy Pontiac see the sprinkling of those things in the community as potential, a challenge and opportunity in a community on the rise.
Those same vacant storefronts are a chance to open up a new, eclectic business that might not fit in with character of a Birmingham. Empty lots could also be priced right for the next new-construction development. The large stock of early 20th Century housing around downtown in need of some work offers unique character and charm not found in new developments.
Pearlie Daniel sees both. The small-business owner followed her family and moved to Pontiac 36 years ago. She has seen the city when it shined and watched it fall on hard times. She stayed because her family lives here and the city has a “homegrown” quality where it’s easy to know a lot of people in the community. Now she says there is a lot of momentum in the community to bring the city back to its glory days.
“Right now, I think people are coming together to make this city what it can be,” Daniel says.
The price is right
Walk into Kathy Henk’s loft and it’s like walking into a different city. The downtown Pontiac resident owns Henk Studio, a floral design business for parties and weddings, and lives above it in a spacious loft.
“I love my apartment,” Henk says. “It’s just wonderful. Every time people come in here, they say it’s just like New York.”
Henk was looking for a cosmopolitan, urban lifestyle when she moved into downtown Pontiac 15 years ago. She bought an old, two-story building constructed in the late 1800s that had been vacant for at least five years. Its glory days, when it housed a men’s clothing store in the 1950s, were well behind it.
Henk didn’t care. She saw potential. She bought the building and started renovating her diamond in the rough, along with a handful of other urban pioneers.
“The location was good for me because it’s close to Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham,” Henk says. “There were vacant storefronts and there really wasn’t much going on. Now most of the buildings are filled.”
Today she sees a town with a vibrant nightlife that is steadily attracting more people, bringing it to the brink of really going places. Although the opportunity has passed to get in on the ground floor of downtown’s housing movement like Henk did, she thinks there are still a lot of chances to get in cheaply.
“The prices are still very good here,” Henk says. “We have a lot of possibilities. We have a ways to go but we have a lot of opportunity here, too.”
Downtown Pontiac doesn’t have the same sort of big name projects that are popping up throughout Metro Detroit’s downtown areas. It’s still at the stage of creating lofts above historic storefronts, but city officials look to move downtown beyond that soon.
Later this spring the city will complete a downtown housing study that will focus on the market for creating new residences and what the market can absorb. Other major downtowns in Metro Detroit, such as Detroit and Ann Arbor, have conducted and utilized similar studies to spur new housing starts.
This summer, the city will prepare a list ranking the buildings and parcels in downtown that can be redeveloped. They will shop those rankings along with a list of economic incentives and the downtown housing study to developers. They hope to spur more development for businesses and housing.
“We have the same opportunities as the rest of the major downtowns in Metro Detroit,” says Sandy McDonald, executive director of the Pontiac Downtown Development Authority.
He also points toward downtown’s strong stock of historic turn-of-the-century buildings that can’t be duplicated as even more incentive for developers. Similar historic structures in downtown Detroit, such as the Kales and Vinton buildings, have been restored to residential lofts with great success.
“We are a traditional downtown with a character that you can feel,” McDonald says. “If you are looking for that type of traditional downtown, that is what Pontiac has to offer.”
Attached to the city
Jim Cunningham has lived through Pontiac’s ups and downs. The lifelong-area resident grew up in the city and has set up his business, Monarch Investments, in downtown 55 years ago. Even when people fled the city decades ago, he remained invested in it.
“I just got attached to it,” Cunningham says.
He points out that even though Pontiac has its normal big-city problems, such as a downsizing school system and some blight, he still sees younger people moving in and renovating the buildings. Cunningham thinks downtown needs more workers before it can go for the type of residential developments that are sprouting up in Ann Arbor, Royal Oak and Detroit. But he still sees potential in downtown Pontiac.
“We’re hopefully on the upswing,” Cunningham says.
Leon Yulkowski’s family sees that, too. The president of Pontiac-based commercial-door manufacturer Total Door also grew up in Pontiac and continues to live in the area. Some of his children still live in the city and the family is investing in it. They are just finishing the renovations of the Waterman Center in downtown and are creating office and retail space.
He sees opportunities for people to make a good home in Pontiac and for businesses to make a reasonable profit.
“I think the city has a bright future,” Yulkowski says. “We have lived all of our lives here and we’re not going anywhere.”