On Wednesday, February 27, about a hundred locals gathered in the Civic Theater’s upstairs auditorium to listen to, and take part in, a panel discussion called “The Future of Downtown Farmington: An Evening with Metromode.”
Moderated by DDA President Todd Craft, the panel consisted of Farmington Mayor Steven Schneemann; DDA Executive Director Kate Knight; Issue Media Group Co-CEO Brian Boyle; and Michigan Municipal League Executive Director/CEO Dan Gilmartin.
The program kicked off with a question about the role community engagement plays in the economic development of downtown.
“Many of you … know that this city, this community, is driven by volunteers,” said Schneemann. “ … Looking around the room, I’m seeing people who’ve been really engaged in the community, and they usually started by volunteering for something, by being downtown, by being out in the community and seeing something they want to get connected to. And the next thing you know, they’re interested in serving in a greater capacity on a planning commission. … This also starts to get people familiar with the place enough that they start to say, ‘Hey, this is a place to put down some roots. This is a place where I can start to invest, or I can open a business in.’”
Boyle, who’d just returned from the Knight Media Forum in Miami, noted that one big topic of conversation involved tracking the relationship between civic attachment and economic development and understanding the way the media plays a key role in that.
“The 24/7 news business model, which is essentially driven by clicks, is now, as a business paradigm, incentivized to report on things that disconnect people from place,” said Boyle. “ … There has been a lot of talk about the importance of these types of community conversations as infrastructure to continue to knit the community together and create more civic connectivity at a time when media implodes all around us.”
Participants gather in Farmington's civic theater to discuss the future of the city's downtown.
Gilmartin added, “One of the things we find with downtowns like Farmington is, if you’re out on the side of the road, standing in front of a WalMart, looking across the street at a Costco, you could be anywhere in the world. But if you’re at the Civic Theatre – this is a unique place with a unique history, a unique feel, and a culture, … and celebrating that and hanging on to that is the secret sauce. … The way you know downtown like this is so important is because folks who don’t have it around the state, and around the country, are trying to build it. And they’re finding it very difficult. … So it’s about making sure (downtown Farmington) is a unique experience for people, whether they live here and they’re walking their dog down the street or they’re coming from far away.”
Knight noted that at recent public meetings, city officials asked attendees where they’d like to see planning efforts focused, and the answer, pretty consistently, was “downtown.” “They indicated that they felt a personal identity with the downtown,” said Knight. “It’s part of who you are if you’re from Farmington. … And we serve as the downtown for many of our surrounding areas who aren’t as lucky to have a historic core. But we are the heart. We’re the heartbeat. We’re the center of the community.”
Another question raised involved the economic benefits of having a walkable downtown.
“Walkability is one of the tenets of the 21st-century community,” said Gilmartin. “Folks are looking for that. Since World War II, we’ve built drivable suburban type communities, almost exclusively. … But what folks are looking to buy right now is a little bit different. There’s a real premium on walkability. … If the 1950 version of all of you were sitting here in this town, you almost had to make a decision to be a business-friendly community or a quality of life community. … Today, the economic argument and the quality of life argument are one.”
Panel at Farmington Civic Theater. Photo by David Lewinski.
At one point during the program, Knight revealed that Catherine Jewell, who owns Blue Hat Coffee and Gallery in Coldwater, Michigan, is now looking to move the independent cafe into the first floor of Farmington’s Masonic Hall.
“This is what people are looking for,” said Gilmartin. “They’re getting away from the sameness we’ve been building, and they’re looking for unique opportunities. The Jewells – it would have been much easier to go to a strip mall on Haggerty, right? They could have signed a lease and started in there in 30 days. But they didn’t want to be there, and it doesn’t work there.”
But Gilmartin was also quick to raise another issue critical to downtown Farmington’s future– people need a place to live.
“There’s not a ton of housing here in downtown,” said Gilmartin. “ … I think the best communities are those where you can live as a child, or as a young person, raise a family, and grow old. When you see a place where it’s great to do that, you know they’re hitting it out of the park. … I have two young sons, and my wife and I shopped for the big backyard and the finished basement. I realized that it was my eighth housing choice as an adult, and we’ll probably downsize once, maybe twice, so maybe, if things go well, I’ll have made ten housing choices as a person, … and one would have been based on children. One out of ten. We’ve got to figure out how we respond to everybody, and what types of amenities everyone is looking for. … That’s one of the reasons why having a strong DDA that’s out there bird-dogging what’s happening in the downtown area, and thinking holistically rather than parcel by parcel, is so important to communities like this.”
Schneemann also addressed the shortage of downtown housing options.
“It’s not just the DDA or the city’s elected officials that want to see increased residential in downtown,” said Schneemann. “That’s been something that’s been part of the master planning efforts, and that our own residents have told us they would like to see. … We do have some incremental growth in that regard, but we’re on the cusp of a much more substantial series of projects that are going to help grow and densify the downtown. I’m sure there are going to be growing pains that go along with that, but as people say, they’re good problems to have.”
Ironically, the localized micro-economy of Farmington’s downtown – including the farmer’s market, restaurants, specialty food shops, etc. – is the key to competing in the global marketplace, according to Gilmartin.
“To quote Bo Schembechler, you don’t stay the same,” said Gilmartin. “You either get better or you get worse, because if you’re not getting better, your opponents are getting better, so by definition, you’re getting worse. And I see that in downtowns all the time. … I’d implore you to look forward, not backward.”
Panel at Farmington Civic Theater. Photo by David Lewinski.
Though the most recent significant housing development proposal – which envisioned three four-story buildings with a total of 115 apartments, and 115 parking spaces – for the Maxfield Training Center lot was put on hoild in 2018, “that’s a prime opportunity for redevelopment for residential, and every master plan and planning device that I’ve seen, going back decades, has called for that to be some sort of high-density residential development,” said Schneemann. “But there are other pockets in and around downtown. … There are now developers that are kicking the tires, that I can say, in different parts of the downtown, with different properties. So I would suggest that in the next couple of years, we’re going to start to see some projects where there will be a lot of additional housing opportunities downtown.”
The evening’s program concluded with a few questions from the crowd, including one about developing a philosophical vision for the town’s future.
“I think we all agree that a huge strength for us is our diversity,” said Knight. “We have marvelous socioeconomic and ethnic diversity in Farmington, and that’s to be celebrated. We have companies come and look at us, and crunch our data, and look at our demographics, and I think they’re blown away by the range of people we have here, and the different experiences they bring, and the range of housing costs within a one-to-five mile radius. We’ve got strong schools, so we’ve got a lot to offer for people who are looking to have an opportunity at all different housing price points.”
While discussing the growing pains and objectives of nearby communities, the slogan “Don’t Royal Oak my Ferndale” got a mention, prompting Mayor Schneemann to say, “I’ve been involved with groups who’ve been talking about this over the last 15 years in Farmington, and what I can tell you is, there seems to be a consensus that we don’t want to Ferndale-Royal Oak-Birmingham-Northville our Farmington. We recognize that we have a unique identity, and that’s what we’re trying to build on. … Are we a party place? Are we a family place? Are we a place for young people? Can we age in place here? And the answer has been ‘yes.’ … I talked about eclecticism earlier, and I think that’s really a part of that eclectic mix that we have because we really are all those things in one big old bundle.”
Gilmartin closed out the night’s comments by advocating for Farmington to develop an economic position statement.
“So many of the Main Street communities across the country and the county, they all have mission statements, they all have vision statements,” said Gilmartin. “You can almost close your eyes and say exactly what the vision statements are going to say. But they never really carve out their economic position statements, and then go back to that and align their program to work around those economic position statements – whether it’s their events, or whether it’s their preservation ethic, whatever it is, to reinforce that. … One of the keys to downtowns is that they have to keep evolving and changing and paying attention to the market while being true to themselves, and keeping their authenticity intact.”