Kat Foley's hometown of Saline is a bustling, increasingly trendy town with multiple recently opened destination businesses ranging from two breweries to a major movie theater. But that's all quite a big change from the farm town Foley recalls growing up in in the early '90s.
"Saline was very agricultural, very rural. Parents were farmers or worked at the Ford plant," says Foley, who runs her own photography business and coaches girls' tennis at Saline High School. "It was crazy to see these fields filling up with subdivisions as I grew up."
Saline survived the economic downturn of 2008 and bounced back to become a thriving small town with many big-city amenities, while striving to retain its rural feel and agricultural heritage. Now the city is attracting new businesses and seeing existing businesses expand, due in part to a business-friendly government, residents who support local businesses, the city's small-town feel, and its proximity to Ann Arbor.
Foley left Saline for a short time to teach photography and history in San Diego. But she soon moved back to find a supportive home for herself and her photography business.
"It's been wonderful, seeing families growing up," she says. "I've taken photos of kids from age three to graduation from high school, and I've done senior picture, wedding day, and photos of babies for the same person."
Building a "big small town"
John Olsen, executive director of the Saline Area Chamber of Commerce, says the community still prides itself on its agricultural heritage.
"I see Saline as a big small town," Olsen says. "We're near Ann Arbor but we want to keep our identity, and we work hard with local businesses to make that happen. There are still a lot of farmers farming in our community. And our chamber has worked with them over the years, because farms are businesses."
That "big small town" feel is attractive both to small mom-and-pop stores run by locals and big international tech companies. New businesses are coming into Saline, and existing companies are growing and expanding.
In recent years, Saline has gained new amenities including two breweries, Salt Springs and Stony Lake, as well as Emagine Saline movie theater. Even more recently, the Saline building formerly occupied by Mangiamo restaurant has been announced as the second location for Chelsea-based restaurant Smokehouse 52.
The city has also recently seen the arrival of The Cheese Shop of Saline, owned by one of the founders of Zingerman's Creamery; McPherson Local, a small boutique store featuring locally-made products; and a bakery called Sweet Leilani's Desserts.
French company NAVYA announced in July that it would start manufacturing its autonomous shuttles at a plant in Saline, adding to the footprint foreign-owned companies have in Saline. Liebherr-Aerospace, a European company that has been operating in Saline for many years, expanded into a new 140,000-square-foot facility in 2016.
Advanced material technology company MMI and American Soy have also expanded in the last year or two, and picture-frame maker Urban Ashes recently announced it was expanding and moving from its Pittsfield Township location into a bigger space in Saline.
Surviving bumps in the road
On the infrastructure side of things, Michigan Avenue, which runs through the heart of Saline, received a total makeover last year. But that's just one sign of rejuvenation in a downtown that's become considerably livelier in the past five or six years.
During the economic downturn, parts of downtown were looking empty. But occupancy is up and vacancy rates are down, from 18 percent vacant in 2011 to to only 4 percent vacant today, according to statistics supplied by the nonprofit Saline Main Street.
Riley Hollenbaugh, executive director of Saline Main Street, says a vital downtown is key to vitality in an entire city because of the "ripple effect."
"Every successful city has a great downtown, and then people building around it," Hollenbaugh says. "And now our great downtown is starting to attract other businesses."
Saline city council member Christen Mitchell both lives and works in Saline, and grew up in the city. She remembers clearly the many changes downtown Saline has gone through.
"I go back to the time when we had a five-and-dime and Buster Brown shoes on Main Street. I also remember very clearly having this economic collapse and seeing so many market changes, and the stores were really struggling," Mitchell says. "And at the same time, Saline kind of hung in there. We have an industrial park that allowed us to have larger manufacturers like Liebherr and American Soy and Flatout Flatbread."
Mitchell says she believes having a mix of small and large businesses spread across many industries is part of what kept Saline thriving even during the worst years of the economic downturn.
One of the shops filling in those formerly-empty spaces is McPherson Local. Inspired by Argus Farm Stop in Ann Arbor, Jen and Zack McPherson decided to turn an empty downtown space into a market featuring all Michigan-made products.
"Our store is in a historical building in Saline, right downtown, that was the Drowsy Parrot," Jen McPherson says. "It was sitting vacant for a long time, and it hurt my heart to drive by there every day."
After months of hoping another business would take over the space, the McPhersons started their own store, featuring items from local artisans and entrepreneurs. The store currently doesn't have refrigerators, so it can't offer fresh produce or dairy, but the McPhersons hope to change that in the future. Currently, the store offers shelf-stable foods, bath and body items, natural cleaning and laundry products, jewelry, art and pottery, furniture, and kitchen items.
Many say that Saline's schools – some of which are among the highest-ranked in Michigan – make it an attractive place to live and work. Others note that there's a strong feeling in the community that locals should support local businesses. Additionally, businesses that want to locate in Saline find very few roadblocks put in their way by government officials. All of these factors combine to make Saline attractive to big and small businesses.
Mitchell says she tries to think of Saline shops and businesses first when she's looking to spend money, and that philosophy seems widespread among Saline residents.
"McPherson Local is the epitome of what is happening not just in Saline but in all small towns," says Foley. "We appreciate local food and artists, and it's nice to have spaces dedicated to highlighting [local products]."
On the government and organizational level, Hollenbaugh notes that both the city government and his nonprofit try to be welcoming and helpful to new businesses locating in the city. For instance, Saline Main Street has a program that subsidizes the cost of signage for new businesses up to $500. It helps businesses get started by defraying costs and helps with the beautification of downtown at the same time, he says.
Mitchell says city council and Saline mayor Brian Marl "worked tirelessly" through the economic downturn to get businesses to locate in Saline, and the city's government officials still endeavor to be easy to work with when it comes to locating a business in the city.
"Our mayor has a card with his cell phone on it, and people can reach out and talk to him at any time," she says, adding that all council members are "pretty accessible."
"We're genuinely interested, because we live here and work here and we're excited to see the possibilities grow," Mitchell says.
Olsen agrees that local government is friendly and supportive to businesses.
"I don't feel like there are a lot of barriers to someone who wants to come into town and have the city work with them, unlike other communities where residents will tell you it's a nightmare trying to work with government," he says.
That's just an extension of Saline's community spirit overall, he says.
"The community that pulls together works together, and that's part of our success," Olsen says. "We move forward and we do it together. As the economy has been looking up, people are looking to open businesses, and Saline is a great place to put them."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Doug Coombe.