After playing defense on economic development for almost a decade, Ypsilanti Township is adopting a proactive approach to redeveloping and revitalizing its key commercial corridors on East Michigan Avenue and Ecorse Road.
"It was stressful (to worry about businesses leaving) and now it’s joyful to work with the business owners and the residents on planning the future," Ypsi Township supervisor Brenda Stumbo says. "It takes time to do that and it takes money to do that, but we think the investment is well worth it."
Stumbo says the township was forced into a defensive position in 2009 when General Motors (GM) announced the closure of its manufacturing plant at Willow Run, wiping out 37 percent of the township's tax base. RACER Trust sold the historic property in 2016 and the American Center for Mobility (ACM) opened there at the end of 2017, enabling the township to play offense in economic development again.
East Michigan Avenue and Ecorse Road are considered "strategically important corridors" because they're the entrances to Ypsi Township from U.S. 12 and the city of Ypsi. Since they serve as the gateways to and from the township, township planning and development coordinator Charlotte Wilson believes those corridors deserve more attention.
Ypsi Township recently adopted a Placemaking Plan, which focuses on land use and zoning; connectivity and circulation; and urban design, placemaking, and beautification in both corridors. The goal is to make East Michigan Avenue and Ecorse Road choice locations for businesses, residents, and visitors through business incubation, creation of anchor businesses, beautification, safety improvements, and reinvestment.
Stumbo says the Placemaking Plan has provided an opportunity for the township to look toward the future. Throughout the planning process, she says the township was able to consider new ideas that weren't really possible when officials were focused on trying to keep the township afloat after GM's departure.
Ypsi Township received a $50,000 grant from the Defense Manufacturing Assistance Program (DMAP) at the University of Michigan Economic Growth Institute to hire consultants to develop the Placemaking Plan. Consultants from Carlisle/Wortman Associates sought to engage the community throughout the six-month plan development process. A planning task force comprised of residents, business owners from both corridors, and officials from the township, city, and county was formed at the beginning of the year to guide the process and build consensus around a comprehensive strategy for both corridors' future. The wider community was invited to provide input during a two-day design workshop in March.
Mobility and safety are notable concerns due to the poor lighting, sidewalks, and crossings in the corridors. Many business owners and residents think infrastructure improvements, including contiguous sidewalks and additional lighting, should be among the top priorities.
The Placemaking Plan identifies five early action projects that the township can pursue within the first year of implementation: developing zoning strategies, starting a business administration, improving sidewalks and lighting, exploring potential for a "road diet" to encourage non-motorized transportation, and conducting environmental assessments on township-owned parcels.
Ice Cream Time owner Jim Tefend is mostly concerned about the area's vacant buildings and lots because he thinks they're "a bad look for everybody." He remains very happy with his location at 1240 Ecorse Rd., where he's been for 27 years, because of his strong relationships with customers and neighbors. When isolated incidents occur, like broken windows, he says several dozen people will show support by stopping in and expressing sympathy.
Khadija Wallace's 17-year-old business, Joyful Treats Catering, has been located at 103 Ecorse Rd. for almost two years. Wallace was a member of a task force that worked on the Placemaking Plan. She wants to see more family-friendly entertainment options in the area. She plans to help attract families by hosting events, like cooking classes and movie screenings, through the newer nonprofit arm of her business, Joyful Treats Community Development Corporation. She thinks vandalism and other mischievous behavior would be less likely if people have more things to do.
"I do think that as the events and traffic pick up, that we’ll have to continue to keep an eye on that kind of stuff and the new things that might come along that we’re not experiencing (yet)," Wallace says.
Ypsi Township resident and Placemaking Plan task force member Angela Barbash is considering the possibility of moving her investment advisory firm Revalue from downtown Ypsi to Ecorse Road. Because the corridor is currently underdeveloped, Barbash thinks Revalue might be able to find affordable real estate at the start of the corridor's upswing. But she wants to make sure the township follows through on strengthening and supporting the business community.
Barbash would like the township to conduct additional outreach to residents and business owners in the East Michigan Avenue and Ecorse Road corridors. She thinks all of the businesses should be surveyed to determine what they need to succeed and then connected to resources to ensure their longevity.
"I think that the redevelopment feels very infrastructure-based, which needs to happen, but my concern is that the soft part of this redevelopment — which is the people part of it — ... gets delayed too long," Barbash says.
Clyde Montgomery has owned businesses at 141 Ecorse Rd. for about eight years, most recently C&B Mortgage Solutions. He believes much of the area needs to be "spruced up," and he's put money into the exterior and interior of his building. He hopes the township's proposed business administration would help allocate grants or loans to business owners who want to invest in their buildings.
"In order to attract more businesses here, there has to be some type of incentive," Montgomery says. "If you take a ride up and down the street, some of the buildings ... need facelifts."
Montgomery says businesses in the corridor stand to attract new customers from ACM.
"Those people are making decent money, so they’re not going to go into an area where they can’t see prosperity or safety," he says.
Ypsi Township also received funding from the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development to create an Economic Development Strategy. Township officials are in the process of hiring an economic development director, who will primarily focus on handling inquiries from businesses that are interested in setting up shop in Ypsi Township, as a result of the Economic Development Strategy.
The Placemaking Plan and the Economic Development Strategy will be utilized as the township updates its master plan. Once the township is ready to start implementing the updated master plan, township officials plan to initially address community and business engagement with a focus on the East Michigan Avenue and Ecorse Road corridors.
"The (DMAP) grant was a spark that made us realize how many assets we really do have and how engaged our community wants to be, and now we have to implement more in-depth on that through the master plan," Stumbo says.
Brianna Kelly is the project manager for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
All photos by Doug Coombe.