Downtown Mount Clemens' economy 'bubbling up' next to the Clinton River

On New Year’s Eve 2015, WJR Radio asked Michelle Weiss to share her feelings on what 2016 had in store for Mount Clemens.
 
“I said it was going to be a great year … I felt it in my bones,” said Weiss, marketing and events coordinator for the Mount Clemens Downtown Development Authority (DDA).
 
At the time she didn’t know what exactly was on the horizon for the Macomb County seat, but she sensed that people were more upbeat and light on their feet after years of struggling through the Great Recession that left Mount Clemens and much of the state with a slew of shuttered businesses and empty homes.
 
Weiss’s optimism turned out to be valid. In the last several months the downtown has welcomed several new businesses, including two antique stores, a coffee shop, fine art gallery and even a Pokémon cyber café. A sushi restaurant will open shortly, as will an Irish pub and banquet hall. The former Emerald Theater, which had been closed for about two years, was purchased in 2015 by the owner of the Royal Oak Music Theater, It is now being revamped into a live entertainment venue with plans for an adjacent Mexican restaurant. And Macomb County is pouring some $65 million into redeveloping its downtown government buildings.
 
“It’s been amazing; it’s like every time we turn around something else is moving in, and it’s great,” Weiss said. “We’ve waited a long time for this. It’s been a long six years with the economy the way it is.”
 
Despite the positive momentum, the public perception of Mount Clemens is often of a struggling, unsafe city. Local leaders recognize this problem and are working to combat negative impressions while marketing the city’s assets.
 
Mount Clemens has a long and storied history. It was incorporated as a village in 1837 on the same day that Michigan became a state. By 1879 it became a city, and around this time, residents discovered and developed mineral bath spas that brought the city international acclaim. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Mount Clemens also was home to several rose growers, earning it the title of America’s Rose Capital.
 
Though its spa and rose industries eventually faded, the city saw renewed development in the 1950s and 1960s following the switch to a city manager form of government. Today, Mount Clemens bills itself as a financial and judicial hub with the county government among its top employers, along with McLaren Macomb Hospital and auto supplier Axalta Coating Systems.
 
“We have one of the very few traditional downtowns in Macomb County and we want to capitalize on that, whether that’s entertainment, dining, culture, recreation,” says Brian Tingley, the city’s community development director. “We have the Clinton River running through the city adjacent to downtown … we do see ourselves as that one stop for all of your needs in Macomb County.”
 
Local business owner Jimmy Gwizdala describes the city with similar enthusiasm, but he’s concerned that people outside Mount Clemens don’t seem to recognize it.
 
“There is no identity, and it’s a big problem ... I don’t think people outside of Mount Clemens understand what it is,” Gwizdala said.
 
Gwizdala moved his interactive digital marketing firm, Hunch Free, from Birmingham to Mount Clemens. On the surface, such a move may look “crazy” to some, but he said the city is a hidden gem with ideal amenities. He also operates the Collaborative, a co-working facility downtown that he’s in the process of turning into a business incubator. He said the city is starting to take on a mini tech vibe as more technology companies locate in Mount Clemens.
 
Gwizdala says people who don’t live or work in Mount Clemens often view it as a “broken downtown full of crime.” But that’s not the city where he proudly located his digital marketing business, Hunch Free. Instead, he says Mount Clemens offers small-town friendliness with an urban downtown feel. Gwizdala says he feels safe there and enjoys the walkable community and beautiful waterfront.
 
Many Southeast Michigan communities face a similar challenge in marketing their brand, according to Melissa Roy, executive director of Advancing Macomb, a group of business and community leaders aimed at growing and promoting the county’s assets.
 
Many communities’ only marketing outlet is publicizing itself as a place with great schools or as a party city, Roy said. She doesn’t think Mount Clemens is targeted toward either of those areas, yet it still offers many amenities. The challenge is finding its brand and promoting itself with limited resources— something the region hasn’t done effectively for a long time, she says.
 
Like many of its neighbors, Mount Clemens was forced to cut services and city staff in response to plunging property values and decreased state revenue sharing during the Great Recession. Mount Clemens was in a particularly difficult situation since a significant portion of its land is occupied by the county and other entities that don’t pay property taxes.
 
By 2014 city officials were warning that the city was at risk of emergency management. But thanks to a 2014 voter-approved tax increase and an improving economy, the city is in a “much better position financially” and hopes to invest in infrastructure improvements throughout the downtown and neighborhoods, according to Tingley.
 
The city is tapping into the Clinton River as a community amenity.  The Clinton River Watershed Council is seeking funding to open a new kayak and canoe livery and park near the YMCA. The DDA is seeking grants to build an Eastern Market-style shed to host a downtown farmer’s market and concourse for cooking classes and other events. A separate building would house a pop-up restaurant and commissary kitchen.
 
The river also has also attracted fans of Pokémon Go, a mobile location-based game that became a craze in summer 2016. The river and downtown area tend to have a lot of Pokémon characters for players to “catch,” Weiss says, adding that the city has seen 300-400 people coming into the city at night to play. Some restaurants have extended their hours, and two fans even opened up a Pokémon cyber café downtown to cater to players.
 
The one-year-old City Sneakers program is boosting downtown business as well. The walking and running club meets weekly at different restaurants and has created “wonderful camaraderie” while introducing residents and visitors to new parts of the city, Weiss says.
 
Gwizdala said he hopes to see additional retail and housing downtown. Fifteen to 20 years ago, Mount Clemens was a great bar town — even better than Royal Oak and Ferndale, he says. But he notes that while Mount Clemens focused on office space, bars and restaurants, Royal Oak and Ferndale surrounded their restaurants with retail and housing, which proved to be more sustainable.
 
County and city officials seem to agree, as they’ve set a goal to attract a mix of retail and housing developments to city-owned property along the Clinton River.
 
Mount Clemens is in a state of flux as the city manager left in June. An interim city manager is in place, and Tingley said he expects it will take until January to get a permanent leader on board.
 
“There are a lot of things bubbling up under the surface in terms of new development and opportunities,” Tingley says, adding that it’ll be important to find someone who’s able to hit the ground running and continue the momentum.
 
As for the DDA’s Weiss, she’s optimistic that Mount Clemens’ best days are ahead of it.
 
“I have a feeling it’s going to be an even better year next year,” she says. “Because if we’ve shaken and moved this much this year, there’s only more to come.”

This piece is part of our City Dive series in which we go deep to find out what's next in the cities and towns in Metro Detroit. Read more in the series here.
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