It’s an unusually warm October day, and Mary Jo Durivage is sipping tea outside of Buddy’s Pizza in West Dearborn’s downtown district, listening to an audiobook.
Durivage lives just two blocks from the city’s center point and like many people in the area, often finds herself passing the time along Michigan Avenue.
“I love where I live and the history of it,” says the Morley Area resident of Dearborn on the Park condominiums. “Part of my routine is to go up to the library when it opens at 11 a.m., get a newspaper at the gas station and then go over to Common Grace Coffee and get some coffee.”
Michigan Avenue has long been a central hub in Dearborn, connecting people with shopping, dining and living experiences different than any other city in metro Detroit. Now, city leaders are driving forward with a five-point plan to re-energize the corridor and offer even more to residents and entrepreneurs.
Making the downtown more walkable, enhancing its image, driving its millennial appeal, promoting innovative retail and providing a cohesive community are the areas Cristina Sheppard-Decius, director of the West Downtown Dearborn Development Authority, says are the focus areas for Dearborn. Each adds an important piece to downtown’s transformational strategy and enlivening Michigan Avenue.
“Michigan Avenue for a very long time has always been home to our downtown and been our main street. The corridor itself connects from Detroit on to Chicago and traverses through many other communities along the way, but our downtowns are built upon it,” Sheppard-Decius says. “Michigan Avenue serves as the backbone to the community. Everything is anchored on it. There are so many assets just off of Michigan Avenue: our colleges, the Henry Ford, the Ford Headquarters and Fairlane Town Center, as well as the Civic Center area.”
Durivage, a retiree, loves to walk as much as possible. She would like to see a restoration of the SMART bus hours which were cut several years ago and more shopping along Michigan Avenue. With better transportation, she says she’d get to spend more time in East Dearborn at her favorite stops, like the M&M Cafe and Arab American National Museum.
Scott Saionz of the East Dearborn Downtown Development Authority Board of Directors, calls Michigan Avenue the “main artery” for the city, connecting people to the east and west, Detroit and some of the biggest attractions around.
He’s hoping for an effective form of mass transit to come along Michigan Avenue to complement the city’s WalkScore score of 85 out of 100.
“There’s a lot of places to walk; to ArtSpace, Jazz on the Avenue all summer, the movies in the park,” he says. “You can bike from east to west without having to use your car, and if you do use your car the free parking is a real positive.”
In East Dearborn, he highlights retail as one of the main attractions, including Green Brain Comics, Retro Image antique store and Blick Art Materials. In West Dearborn, he says Ford’s Garage is a tremendous asset paying homage to the heritage of the city and points to Ford Land’s Wagner development project as “supercharging” Michigan Avenue.
Sheppard-Decius says creating a more walkable downtown includes connecting the side streets, the neighborhoods, and surrounding communities with Michigan Avenue, along with creating a more bike-friendly corridor. It also means creating more open spaces and public seating to gather outdoors and share in a mutual energy with other residents and visitors.
Building a community
Sheppard-Decius says creating a sense of place along Michigan Avenue is vitally important.
“It’s about creating your second living room in a lot of ways,” she says. “It provides an opportunity for the community to connect with one another and share experiences. In this day and age, I think that's’ why downtowns are thriving as much as they are. We’ve found so many ways to disconnect with technology. Now we are craving a way to connect.”
The visual image of Michigan Avenue also comes into play. This means both first impressions of building designs and streetscapes as well as perceived images about the city of Dearborn, according to Sheppard-Decius. She says the city is looking at ways to improve the visible presence of the downtown districts and getting the message of Dearborn out before others try to make the message themselves.
“We want to share the real Dearborn, what you’ll find here, who the people are and the opportunities that are available here,” she says. “We want to harness our powers and collaborate, creating a powerful message about Dearborn overall."
Sheppard-Decius says the city is actively looking at how retail is changing in the marketplace and following the national trend of making retail more experienced-based.
“We are looking at the types of retail we need to attract to create a good business mix, but also, who do we need to attract to be successful in this new day and age of retail,” she explains. She adds that stores need to provide a sense of entertainment and experience to buck the trend of online shopping.
“What people want is to be treated like they are somewhere special,” she says. “I believe that’s the best thing about our downtowns, our businesses can completely deliver on that.”
Sabrina Luzia, one of the founding artists at Dearborn’s Painting with a Twist, can attest to the friendly attitude amongst business owners in the downtown districts. The 29-year-old Detroit resident has been at the studio since it opened in March 2016 and says Dearborn stands out for her because of those connections.
“The downtown area is close-knit,” she says. “No matter where you go, you know somebody in Dearborn and that’s what I really love.”
Luzia is among the generation that city leaders are trying to attract and grow in the city, focusing on millennial appeal.
Sheppard-Decius says that means not only creating unique housing stock, like the former city hall building now used for artists to live and showcase their work, but also recruiting entrepreneurs to breathe more life into the city’s economy.
“We are asking them not just what they want, but what they can do to be part of our growing downtown,” Sheppard-Decius says.
All of these areas come together to create a space where people connect their energy and find a common vibe.
“That’s what we are trying to do here, make sure Dearborn residents are excited to call downtown their home, as well as making sure the tourists and visitors feel welcomed when they come to town.”
Michele Featherston, a Dearborn resident of 24 years who now lives near Carlyle and Monroe streets, lives about one mile from Michigan Avenue and finds herself there every day for one reason or another, she says.
“I like to go to Lue Thai quite a bit and participate in some of the activities like the Friday night events, summer events for the kids, farmers markets and free concerts,” she says.
She’s impressed with Dearborn’s restaurant stock along Michigan Avenue, but would like to see some more of the specialty shops and unique storefronts you’d find in other cities like Ann Arbor, she explains.
“It seems like there are a lot more people along Michigan Avenue now,” she says.
Featherston and her family recently got to add their mark to Michigan Avenue, as part of the city’s Tree Well decorating program. Together they decorated a tree in front of Moose’s Martini Pub, erecting a scarecrow with a SODA (South Outer Drive Association) shirt and hand-painted rocks.
“I’ve always believed that you should get involved with the community you live in,” she says. “It’s a great way to meet people and improve your community. It strengthens the community and promotes unity.”
She says activities like the tree will not only add life to the corridor but give residents something to bond over together and be proud of.
“The residents here take a lot of pride in their neighborhoods, the schools, the parks,” she says. “There’s a sense of belonging here.”