If you live in western Macomb County, Utica mayor Thom Dionne says his city wants to be "your downtown."
Dionne describes Utica as the main walkable downtown destination among a cluster of communities including Shelby Township, Sterling Heights, Macomb, Warren, and Washington Township.
"We have all the elements of the small town," he says. "We have our little downtown district. We have a historical district. All the neighbors know each other. Going to the football game on Friday night's still a big deal. But yet we're surrounded by everything else, all these big municipalities with all the other big venues."
Utica Mayor Thom Dionne
In just the past two years, the city has undergone multiple changes that stand to double down on its status as a local destination. With the opening of a professional independent ballpark, the election of the placemaking-minded Dionne, and the introduction of several popular new public events, "your downtown" is bustling with a new sense of energy.
The chief catalyst behind that energy is the 2016 opening of Jimmy John's Field, home to the independent United Shore Professional Baseball League (USPBL), just west of Utica's downtown strip. Dionne describes the park's opening as "a huge win for the city."
Andy Appleby is CEO of Rochester-based General Sports and Entertainment, which owns the ballpark and the USPBL. He says Utica made an appealing location for his endeavor because of the unique opportunity to place a ballpark literally next door to both a highway (M-59) and a downtown. Appleby expresses a desire to give back to the community.
"Our goal is not just to improve the property values in Utica, but to improve the property values throughout Macomb County," Appleby says. "We really believe that we are changing the brand perception of both Utica and Macomb County, one family and one game at a time."
Dionne says Appleby is succeeding so far, describing Jimmy John's Field as a "huge win" for Utica.
Jimmy Johns Field
"The ball field's really given us just a big boost in presence in Macomb County," he says. "When people are in Utica they go to the ballfield and then they make their way into our local restaurants and taverns ... whereas before you had to have a lot of roots in Utica to spend time in Utica. Now people from outside Utica come into Utica."
Those people aren't just visitors, but new residents as well. Stacy Smale had been a teacher at Utica High School for over a decade when she and her husband decided to move their family to Utica from Macomb last year. Smale says she and her husband had frequented the Shamrock in the past, but Jimmy John's Field brought them downtown on a more regular basis.
"The more we walked around there, the more we thought it was a really fun area where you can just step out your door and walk somewhere," she says.
New mayor, new events
Another major change for Utica came just under a year ago when Dionne took office, following Jacqueline Noonan's 28 years and 13 terms as mayor. Dionne says Noonan was a "phenomenal force to be reckoned with" and that he's picking up where Noonan left off on work that pushed Utica in a positive direction. But he says he also brings a younger perspective aimed at bringing 30-somethings into the city.
"I really subscribe to the idea that if you make [Utica] a cool place to visit and you bring people here, as so many other communities have done ... not only will people visit, but they'll want to live there," Dionne says.
Dionne hopes to accomplish that by building on the ballpark's success to attract more businesses to downtown. He counts the recent arrival of Danny J's Brick Tavern and a new shawarma restaurant downtown as successes. But since taking office, he's also introduced multiple new events aimed at drawing additional crowds into downtown. Food truck rallies in the Utica Public Library's parking lot attracted thousands of people this summer after being introduced in July.
This summer also saw the debut of the "Weekend Unwind" Friday outdoor concert series, scheduled to coincide with ball games at Jimmy John's Field. Dionne says attendance grew quickly from a crowd of 20 or 30 at the first concert to 100 or 150 attendees at the final show of the year.
Tom Galazka, a member of the city's planning committee and a Utica resident of 38 years, says the concert series, in particular, has "really brought the community together."
"I've met neighbors who have lived here for a long time, and we've lived here for a long time, and we didn't even know they were around," Galazka says. "It makes a big difference."
Beyond the ballpark
Galazka particularly values those added community events because he's not a fan of Jimmy John's Field. He says noise from loudspeakers and fireworks at the ballpark, as well as parking hassles incurred from ballpark patrons taking up neighborhood street parking, have been more trouble than they're worth to the park's neighbors.
"The ballpark was supposed to be the saving grace, but I think it's working the opposite," Galazka says. "At first it was a novelty, but I think the novelty is wearing off. We'll have to wait and see."
Gus Calandrino, a 13-year Utica resident and member of the city's downtown development authority, says the ballpark has been a net positive for Utica despite some downsides. But he says the park only activates downtown for a few days a week during the summer, and the community will still have to continue diversifying what it has to offer. Calandrino says downtown could still use a breakfast joint, a local coffee shop, and possibly a bike shop to service cyclists who use the popular Iron Belle Trail along the Clinton River.
"One of the things we've got to try to do is use the dynamic of the ballpark to Utica's advantage, but not become completely reliant on it," Calandrino says. "We need to encourage businesses that are self-reliant and will survive with or without baseball."Stacy Smale
Nonetheless, there's a sense among many Utica residents that their town is on the upswing no matter what. Smale says she and her husband only found their house in the city because they had an alert set on real-estate website Zillow for Utica properties. She recently saw her neighbor's house sell before there was even time to get a "for sale" sign in the ground.
"Other people know that it's a cool place to live now," Smale says. "If people are looking to live in that little downtown area, you have to be ready to make an offer the same day. It's kind of crazy."