The late '90s brought a slew of improvements to St. Clair Shores' Nautical Mile, the strip of Jefferson Avenue just west of Lake St. Clair between Nine and Ten Mile Roads. Following the 1993 establishment of the city's Tax Increment Finance Authority (TIFA), the Nautical Mile's streetscape was reconstructed, distinctive new lighting installed, and Wahby Park created in front of the landmark Blossom Heath Inn.
"They modernized it," says Donna Flaherty, who has owned Gifts Afloat on the Mile at 25020 Jefferson since 1985. "They made it more attractive."
However, two decades later, many in St. Clair Shores agree that the Nautical Mile is due for some game-changing new improvements. City staff are currently engaged in planning a variety of enhancements aimed at increasing public access to Lake St. Clair from the Mile, better connecting the waterfront to the Mile itself, and making the Mile more attractive to a new generation of visitors and residents.
"We're going to go into areas that, in the initial effort, we didn't have the budget for," says TIFA board chair Richard Widgren. "We needed to get to a certain point of maturity. Now we're at that point of maturity and now we want to take the next steps and do the things we didn't do the first time through."
Kip Walby. Photo by Doug Coombe.
Opening up the water
Widgren notes that those next steps will be iterative, rather than a "major project" like the late-'90s streetscape initiative. One of the first key pieces is an overhaul of Blossom Heath Park, which lies between the northern end of the Mile and Lake St. Clair. Last year the city refurbished its marina immediately to the south of the park, redoing docks and removing weeds and a fence that lay between the park and the marina.
"I would call that Phase One of our plan for improving this area," says St. Clair Shores Mayor Kip Walby. "You could come into this park and you would not be able to see through to the boats."
The city is planning a renovation of Blossom Heath Park's beach house, aimed at attracting a variety of new activity to the site. The renovation will include a concrete pad to host food trucks, an upper deck where visitors can enjoy beverages or snacks, and volleyball, pickleball, and bocce courts.
Farther east in the park, the city also has requested a state permit to extend an existing short fishing pier to a length of 300 feet. Widgren envisions a pier that could serve as a docking area both for large boats and smaller crafts, as well as a pleasant area for the public to sit and enjoy the water.
Dick Widgren. Photo by Doug Coombe.
"That is the primary function of what we're doing in this next phase: to emphasize that the community can get out to the water in a public area, and to utilize a valuable space for our community better than it's being used right now," Widgren says.
Walby and Flaherty both say St. Clair Shores residents and visitors understandably want to enjoy the city's greatest natural resource: Lake St. Clair. But access and recreational opportunities can be limited.
"People say: 'Where can I see the water?'" Flaherty says. "It's so privately owned, but this would open it up."
The waterfront on two wheels
Another common criticism of the Nautical Mile area is that there's no convenient way to get from waterfront business to waterfront business, either by car or on foot, other than Jefferson. That’s why city officials are planning to open up another kind of new connection between St. Clair Shores' waterfront and the Nautical Mile.
"Most of the restaurants on the water are so far back," says Joe VanderMarliere, co-owner of Baffin Brewing on the Mile's northern edge. "It's like you have to drive almost a half-mile just to get to some of them. And then if you want to go from one restaurant to another restaurant, you have to drive a half-mile back out."
Joe Vandermarliere and Leon Traczynski at Baffin Brewery. Photo by Doug Coombe.
Walby says past efforts to create some sort of connective infrastructure between the Mile and the waterfront have been unsuccessful, largely due to private ownership of waterfront marinas and restaurants. So the city is also considering proposals from several bike-share operators to install up to three bike share systems to make it easier and quicker for boaters to reach the Mile.
"If you want to go to Baffin or some of the other businesses that aren't on the water, we need to be able to get them there," Walby says.
Flaherty says transient boaters are "great for economics here on the Mile."
"But in order for them to move around, they need transportation," she says. "These bikes would be very beneficial."
"A huge opportunity"
Beyond these individual improvements, the Nautical Mile is targeting a much bigger shift in public perception.
"My mission, my goal, is I'd like to make this the kind of Great Lakes destination point that it has the capability of being," Widgren says. "That requires a certain amount of execution, a certain amount of planning, a certain amount of creativity."
Walby has no illusions about the fact that that specifically involves attracting younger people to St. Clair Shores both to live and to recreate. The 2010 U.S. Census showed that St. Clair Shores has one of the highest median ages (44.2 years old) in Macomb County.
"We're cognizant of trying to do more," Walby says. "We've got to cater to that and figure out how we drive down that number. I think that's important for St. Clair Shores' success in the future."
St. Clair Shores. Photo by Doug Coombe.
Baffin Brewing provides one early success story in how the Nautical Mile might become a popular destination both for young business patrons – and young business owners. VanderMarliere says he and his two business partners have been "just trying to keep up" with high demand since they opened.
Although VanderMarliere is a St. Clair Shores native, his partners are not, and his history in the city wasn't the deciding factor in locating there. VanderMarliere says he and his partners simply saw a great building in a market that didn't have any other breweries (although two have since opened in the city). He says they "took a chance" that succeeded, and encourages other business owners to follow suit.
"This is the time," VanderMarliere says. "There's a lot of young professionals moving to Detroit and working in Detroit. Property values in Detroit are going through the roof and for a lot of people, it's out of their budget. It's a huge opportunity for St. Clair Shores because we're the next city over."