Lessons From Downtown: Ferndale, Detroit and a Nation of Main Street Stories

"I've heard all of the excuses people have made for not coming," Donovan Rypkema, principal of Washington D.C.-based PlaceEconomics says to a large crowd in Cobo Center. "Thank you for putting stereotypes and conventional wisdom aside and showing up."

Rypkema was speaking to more than 1,300 downtown development professionals, volunteers and thought leaders from communities throughout the country who are converging on Detroit this week for the first National Main Street Conference in Detroit. For four days, they'll attend 60 educational sessions in Cobo Hall, as well as travel to 15 areas in Metro Detroit for mobile workshops. They'll tour Ferndale. They'll party at Eastern Market. 

Why does that matter to Metro Detroit? Because over the last 30 years, the National Main Street Center has tracked $59.6 billion in reinvestment in physical improvements from both public and private sources in their communities, with a net gain of 115,381 businesses and 502,728 jobs. In 2013, every dollar invested in Main Street communities resulted in $33.28 of economic impact, making it most effective downtown revitalization effort in the country — and several Metro Detroit communities have contributed to those statistics. 

Main Street communities such as Ferndale use the National Main Street Center's Four Point Approach, an organizational technique to revitalize historic downtowns. The concept centers on a comprehensive strategy that addresses a range of common downtown development issues simultaneously — all driven by volunteers. 

"This is very grassroots oriented," says Cristina Sheppard-Decius, executive director of Main Street Community Downtown Ferndale. "It's a great cultural change. You get great ideas from a bunch of volunteers and they see what they can bring to their community."  

When the Ferndale DDA officially joined the program 14 years ago, they'd already been operating as downtown development authority for 20 years. It's not uncommon for downtowns organizations to function in such an independent way, either as a DDA, non-profit or principal shopping district. Though those methods allow for more local autonomy, Ferndale found that by partnering with the Oakland County's Main Street Oakland County to become an official Main Street community has made a dramatic difference. 

After more than $68 million in public and private investment as a Main Street community, downtown Ferndale's vacancy rate has gone from 30 percent in 2000 to about five percent. Three quarters of the buildings have been renovated, 180 flower baskets decorate the downtown, and pedestrian-friendly streetscape design and on-street parking has transformed the way the community functions. 

Hundreds of communities with similar stories join Ferndale this week during the National Main Street Conference. While the annual event has been hosted in such cities as Des Moines, Baltimore and Oklahoma City Detroit is an especially apt location for this year's event. 

"There is so much innovation happening in the neighborhoods of Detroit," says Patrice Frey, president and CEO of the National Main Street Center. "People are working to bring business back, and bring housing back, and that is exciting. There is a lot of excitement and commonality between some of the things Detroit's neighborhoods struggle with and what our communities struggle with."

What's more, though there are currently no official Main Street organizations within Detroit, Michigan itself is home to two state coordinating bodies, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority's Michigan Main Street Center [http://michiganmainstreetcenter.com/] and Main Street Oakland County, and more than 30 local programs throughout the state. And, not to brag, but Michigan communities have left three of the last four National Main Street Conferences with coveted Great American Main Street Awards — including Ferndale in 2010 and Rochester in 2013.

"We are seeing a lot of Michigan communities really standing out," says Frey, president and CEO of the National Main Street Center. "Michigan Main Street and Oakland County have a really strong track record of working with and investing in communities. But it comes back down to the people on the ground."

Those people on the ground, ready to lend a hand to make a better community are what Main Street communities have in common more than anything else, making the theme of this year's conference, "Works in Progress" incredibly appropriate. 

"There might be a lot of work ahead for areas in Detroit, but we're a city on the rise and on the comeback," says Sheppard-Decius. "We have a lot of great lessons people can learn from that."

Fortunately, the Chicago-based National Main Street Center recognized that, and believed in the Detroit enough to bring their popular conference to a city with so much to share.

"Nobody knows better than Detroiters the power of a community-driven approach to revitalization," writes Frey and National Main Street Center Board Chair Barbara Sidway in the conference program. 

And after this week, Downtown Ferndale and others will be bringing that knowledge and experience back from Detroit to the benefit of our area, just as Detroit will be left with some Ferndale wisdom to fold into the revitalization efforts happening there.

Want to see what's happening in Main Street communities throughout Michigan? Check out the eight other Issue Media Group Publications this week to learn how Main Street and this week's conference is making an impact from Iron Mountain to Saline.

This story is part of a placemaking series that is underwritten by the Michigan State Housing and Development Authority.
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