Phoenix Rising

At the Rise of the Phoenix ribbon-cutting event on June 17, Hubert Price, chairman of the city’s sesquicentennial committee, noted, “Pontiac has always been dynamic despite the hardships.”

The mission of his committee, he said, was to “honor the past, recognize the present and build the future.”

A new private-sector initiative is doing just that — filling the city’s historic downtown with entrepreneurs — and hope. And as Pontiac celebrates 150 years as a city, this new commercial stimulus program just might be the key to their future.

Building Community

Thanks to the efforts of Lee Todd, founder of the Rise of the Phoenix program, and the partnerships he forged, the ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrated the opening of not one, but 52 new businesses in the heart of Pontiac’s downtown. They were lured by a bold new initiative: a year’s worth of free rent in the historic buildings that make up Pontiac’s commercial core. After the first year, multi-year leases can be negotiated at Pontiac’s low rent rates. The business owners are still responsible for taxes, utilities and other expenses. The leases were negotiated with the aid of Phil Wojtowicz of Thomas Duke commercial and investment realtors.

In an interview with Fox 2 News, Todd said the city, despite its negative image, has plenty of positive attributes.

“We’ve got three things here that a lot of other communities here don’t have,” he said. The first? “Location, location, location,” he reiterated. “In Pontiac, businesses can reach out to a larger customer base than in most other communities because of the road access. We have all the major freeways going through, and we’re in the heart of Oakland County.”

For entrepreneurs facing tough start-up costs, the efforts of property owners to band together and offer free rent was another major breakthrough. “With tough economic times, rents are a little lower than other communities. The timing was absolutely perfect,” he said.

And Pontiac’s historic commercial building stock provides the extra appeal to business owners who may be on the fence. The official Rise of the Phoenix business plan notes, “It has great historical character in its buildings, which provide a unique and cool urban backdrop that any business and urban dwellers can appreciate.” Todd added, “There’s a lot of different type and sizes and shapes of buildings to offer.”

A Meaningful Investment

The Rise of the Phoenix program attempts to return Pontiac, Oakland’s county seat, to its historic significance as one of the area’s commercial and industrial centers — not to mention its legacy as Michigan’s first inland settlement. Incorporated in 1861, the city’s railroad through the downtown district brought professionals to town; while the burgeoning town’s proximity to the Clinton River made it a natural choice for wool and grist mills to locate. By the dawn of the 20th century, Pontiac was home to many of America’s leaders in horseless carriage manufacturing. Those companies eventually merged under the name of one company, General Motors. And as the automotive industry grew, so too did Pontiac’s future.

Decades later, GM may have left the city, but remnants of Pontiac’s legacy as an auto boom town remain. Some of Oakland County’s most impressive old housing stock can be purchased for reasonable prices in neighborhoods like Seminole Hills and Franklin Boulevard, both designated historic districts.

Capitalizing on the multitude of affordable historic homes, the next phase of Rise of the Phoenix will build on the new commercial base to entice new residents to the city. The plan notes, “The best kept secret to the success of a cosmopolitan downtown is the people who live there … local folks who stop in for breakfast, shop at the deli on Monday afternoon, buy newspapers and stop in for a beer on Tuesday night.” While the initiative does hope to attract popular weekend establishments like restaurants and bars, Phoenix also worked to convince 13 retail outlets to locate in the downtown district.

And the plan’s attracting attention — much of it positive. The Detroit News’ Laura Berman wrote, “on a recent journalistic jaunt to Pontiac, cheap space was being hawked
in the building fronts, and urban pioneers spilled onto the streets.”

It’s not just mom-and-pop establishments either. Future Help Designs, a smartphone app developer, was one of the 52 businesses to take the plunge and relocate to Pontiac from Dearborn Heights. In an interview with company co-founder Christian Marcillo, Metromode writes, “Marcillo adds that the strong sense of community
among Pontiac’s downtown businesses and creative class workers also
helped seal the deal.”

After 150 years of boom and bust, the next chapter of Pontiac’s future is looking promising, indeed.

For more information, call the Downtown Pontiac Building Promotion Program at (248)758-3036.

Images courtesy of Rise of the Phoenix