Restrooms aren't often a point of pride for retailers, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a jauntier toilette than the one at Leon & Lulu, its tropitone walls draped with vintage roller skates and blackboards, complementing the quirky décor of this purveyor of home furnishings, toys, and gifts. The 15,000-square-foot emporium formerly hailed as the Ambassador roller rink, and, still sporting its snack bar and wooden floor, is one of the cornerstones of downtown Clawson, a cute and unassuming 2.2 square-mile mini-city that is quickly emerging as the little city that could.
Over the last three years, more than a dozen new businesses, including Leon & Lulu, have set up shop in Clawson's downtown, according to City Manager Richard Haberman. This fait accompli would draw little more than a yawn elsewhere, but it's worth noting that the city centers on just one intersection – Main Street and 14 Mile Road. Although surrounded by the biggie burgs of Royal Oak, Troy, and Madison Heights, Clawson (pop. 12,500) is no small fry.
"We're going to make ourselves highly visible," Haberman vows. About five years ago, Clawson revitalized its downtown development authority (DDA), hired a consultant, and crafted ordinances and policies to lay the groundwork for the redevelopment of its downtown and cultivation of a business-friendly image.
He explains, "You've got Royal Oak, you've got Troy, and you've got Madison Heights, and all of these cities have reputations. They're large communities and they have a wide variety of properties. In the city of Clawson, the only way, in my mind, that we can market ourselves is we have to differentiate ourselves."
Accordingly, barriers to entry are lower here than in other locales. He cites reasonable purchase or leasing costs for downtown properties and a staff that works with new and relocating businesses. A city planner and engineering consultant are available to consult directly with any business or property owner. This kind of personal service is not de riguer just anywhere, he says.
"I can only tell you that some of the business people have indicated to me that when they go to some of the neighboring cities, they're met at the counter, given a bunch of forms, told to fill them out, and then 'We'll get back to you' ". The goal, Haberman says, is to get new business in within 30-70 days, depending on the property classification.
The topmost priority is marketing, he says – specifically, the city is investing in an interactive Web 2.0 program. In addition to its fan pages on Facebook, Clawson will be launching new city-wide and downtown websites and mapping systems, potentially this July, Haberman adds. Business owners will have their properties flagged and can include general information and links to their websites. Vacant available parcels will be featured as well. To his knowledge, Clawson will be the first municipality in Michigan to deploy such a product.
The city has also contracted with a firm to do bulk commercials for businesses to put on their websites, YouTube, or even cable programming. Joan Horton, Clawson's acting DDA director, has just returned to her office after visiting downtown businesses in order to sign them on to the program.
While these considerable efforts serve roughly 70 downtown establishments, they should attract new ones to the city as well. "The businesses are stable. We have a lot of long-term businesses and also a lot of new ones moving in over the last few years," keeping the vacancy rate at a low 11%, Horton says.
But there's always a wish list. There are no theaters or arts organizations yet, and "We'd like some more retail. Restaurants and pubs kind of come first, and then bring the people in, and now we need a little more retail," she figures.
Suggestion: Eat before, and after, shopping. Last month, The Metro Times anointed Clawson as the Best New Suburban Dining Destination. Da Nang, a new Vietnamese eatery, opened in the old 1928 bank building across the street from Black Lotus Brewing Company, a microbrewery and restaurant where the outdoor seating is always full. And Japanese grocer Noble Fish makes brilliant sushi, we hear.
In 2007, Clawson offered space to Royal Kubo, a Filipino restaurant and karaoke bar, and "We fell in love with it," manager Jon Campos explains. Before manning the mic at what is consistently voted Best Karaoke Bar by The Metro Times, diners sit street-side beneath an ornate wooden covered-porch entrance. "It's a new downtown, very promising, they have a lot of plans… basically they want to develop the area," Campos says.
After eating and shopping … and eating, walk or bike it off. Haberman enumerates the latest bike-and-pedestrian-friendly streetscape enhancement projects: the narrowing of Main Street to add free on-street parking, a reduction in the speed limit from 35 to 25 mph, brick pavers, and wider sidewalks at the four main corners.
The city also has a grant pending with MDOT for further improvements, including lighting and other amenities like planters and benches, mid-block pedestrian crossings, street parking on 14 Mile Road, and bike racks.
Bridging the path to nowhere
By next spring, he says, "The goal is to connect our bicycling network to our neighboring communities, so it's a seamless movement, so if you're on a bike path in Madison Heights that ends at the Clawson border, the bike path will continue. The same thing with Royal Oak and Troy, whatever routes they have that end at our border will continue. We're going to try to interconnect all the ones around us so it's a seamless transport."
That plan includes a ring around the downtown to connect it with the city's bike paths, Horton adds. And, with the wave of a wand, bikeways appear… While nothing's that quick-n-easy, Paul Nielsen will have you believing.
Nielsen, a DDA board member and owner of the Wunderground Magic Shop, one of the sole remaining brick and mortar stores on the planet for magicians, ventriloquists, and jugglers, enjoys the location for its foot traffic, on-street parking, and – park the bike and go back to the table – the mélange of fine food doesn't hurt, either.
"They're really good to us. They have special events, movie nights, car shows, things that bring people into the downtown area… Almost every month, there's something going on," he explains.
Other stores aren't short on entertainment, either. FlipSide Records carries primo black vinyl disks, Warp 9's got the comic geek market cornered, and the Michigan Harp Center, the state's only harp store, is right in the mix.
While the city means business in its efforts to attract cool businesses, it's about as far from hipper-than-thou as you can get. Its friendly, earthy image makes for a cult following in its own right. People can't seem to forget this place.
"Clawson is just a small little family town," Horton says, "and it's always been that way. Kids move away from here, and they come back and buy a house and have their kids. It's all about family in this town; there are connections all over. It just makes it really nice."
Tanya Muzumdar is a freelance writer and Assistant Editor at Metromode. Her previous article was Ringwald Theatre Has Its Cake, And Eats It Too
Paul Nielsen, owner of Wunderground Magic Shop
Leon and Lulu
Richard Haberman, Clawson city manager
Joan Horton, Director, Clawson DDA
Paul Nielsen performs the cup and ball trick at Wunderground Magic ShopPhotographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D
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