There's a real mutual admiration society among business owners, customers, and neighbors near the burgeoning commercial strip at the intersection of Packard and Stadium Boulevard in Ann Arbor.
The area is partly encompassed by the Burns Park neighborhood, but locals have coined names ranging from "Southtown" to "So-Pack" (for South/Packard) for it.
"I'd like to revive the idea of the 'Packard Mile'," says Steve Osburn, owner of Oz's Music at 1920 Packard. "I defy anyone to name another mile in the city where there are more independent businesses and fewer big corporate stores."
In turn, Tommy York, co-owner of Morgan and York at 1928 Packard, calls Osburn "a hero".
"His heart is giant. He is accessible to everybody, and makes sure people feel welcome," York says. "He started this band for kids on the autism spectrum and other disabled kids, and they do these concerts that are just freaking amazing. In the summer when the kids have a camp, they do a parade through our store, playing music."
Jim Manheim, who lives about a mile from the intersection of Stadium and Packard, says he thinks the mix of restaurants and businesses in the area is "great," and he'll often visit the restaurants and stores on foot in good weather.
"Morgan and York hits both the fine wine and the neighborhood coffeehouse sweet spots," Manheim says. "Mi Compadre has some unusual dishes, and the little patio at Eat is incredibly pleasant in warm weather."
In recent years a few longstanding neighborhood anchor businesses like Morgan and York and Fraser's Pub have been joined by newcomers like a second Argus Farm Stop location, Ricewood BBQ, Black Diesel Coffee, Eat, and Anthony's Pizza. Locally-owned businesses dominate the scene, and they've created a thriving, collaborative commercial hub rooted in a deep commitment to community.
Fraser's has been a neighborhood destination since 1962, when brothers Jimmy and Red Fraser established the bar at 2045 Packard. The business was later sold to Red's son John Fraser and former bartender Ron Sartori.
Sartori has seen many changes in the neighborhood over the years, most of them positive.
"When Michigan went non-smoking, we saw the kids coming back, the wives, the families," Sartori says. "Lots of times, the husband would stop after work for a beer, but now they might bring their wife or kids for dinner. The neighborhood is great to us, just extremely supportive."
He says the bar used to put up outdoor tents during home football games, but ended the practice five or six years ago because the noise and trash customers created "wasn't fair to the neighborhood."
"Busier isn't always better," Sartori says. "Love thy neighborhood."
Sartori says he doesn't consider other businesses in the neighborhood a threat, and refers to Morgan and York as "our good neighbor across the street."
"We're grateful for the new businesses coming in," he says, adding that he hopes developers will figure out what to do with the former Georgetown Mall space, now in development under the name Packard Square.
"We were supportive of rebuilding down there, but the project seems to be running into many snags. They need to get some anchors into that place," Sartori says.
Sartori says he approves of recent developments at the corner of Packard and Stadium, including the small shopping center that houses Black Diesel Coffee, a party store, and a few other local businesses.
"It has diversified that corner a little bit, and it's keeping people in this corridor," he says. "It's great. More traffic on Packard has to be beneficial [for all the businesses]."
Both Sartori and York mention free and easy-to-find parking as one reason people come back to the area – especially in contrast to the parking hassles of downtown Ann Arbor.
"Our neighbors just want to come and park their cars and enjoy a beer, and we try to make it easy for them," Sartori says.
York and Matt Morgan took over the former Big 10 party store at 1928 Packard in 2001 and have noticed more families and more strollers in the area since then.
"We've enjoyed a lot of support from customers who just walk in from all around the Burns Park neighborhood," York says.
He says people in the area value shopping and eating locally.
"People are starving for community," York says. "That's not something you can buy. It's something you need to make."
However, he adds that part of the reason people support these local businesses is that small business owners really care whether their customers return.
"It's really gratifying to see the same faces day in and day out, to see their kids grow up and come back and say hi," York says. "It's an honor to be part of the community."
New kids on the block
Barbecue food truck Ricewood and coffee shop Black Diesel are two of the newer businesses in Southtown.
When asked how he managed to turn a food truck tucked away in Morgan and York's parking lot into a culinary destination, Ricewood owner Frank Fejeran asks, "Are we a destination?" and then goes on to casually mention that people come from Chicago and towns in Indiana just to eat at his barbecue truck.
"I guess we're a destination," he says, finally. "We make a limited amount of product, and we sell out pretty much every day within 90 minutes."
The popularity of food trucks has waxed and waned in Ann Arbor over the last few years, but Fejeran says he's seeing growth year after year since he opened in May of 2015.
"People around that area are very hardcore Ann Arbor locals," Fejeran says. "Between my two employees and myself, we know about 250 who come to visit us by name."
Black Diesel opened at 1423 E. Stadium Blvd. around the same time that Ricewood opened for business, in late spring of 2015, and owner Nick Ferris says the neighborhood was part of what attracted him to the location.
Black Diesel took over a former Peet's Coffee location, and Ferris was sure that Peet's had failed due to corporate decisions and not because the location was bad or through lack of community support. Steady business from the neighborhood has affirmed that he was right on that count, he says.
Ferris says while Stadium is one of the most-traveled roads in the county, it's really the neighborhoods on either side of Stadium that keep Black Diesel in business.
"More than 60 percent of our guests walk or bike up," Ferris says. "It's a really vibrant neighborhood, and that was a primary driver of why we located here. When I heard Peet's was going out of business, my initial thought was what a shame it was. This community deserves better."
Ferris says he likes the diverse demographics his customers represent.
"You have grad students; older undergrads; young families, many of them second or third generation in the community; young professionals; and a fairly health retiree base as well," he says. "How it all comes together is absolutely beautiful."
Like York, Ferris is passionate about using his business to build community.
"None of the businesses in this area do it because there's some great economic return," he says. "They're doing it because they want to be part of the community."
Ferris says he thinks rising rents in Ann Arbor's downtown will continue to make it tough for small, locally-owned businesses to thrive there. He thinks the only way Ann Arbor will be able to preserve the qualities that have traditionally attracted people downtown is to bring that mix of restaurants, bars, retail shops, and walkability to "outlying neighborhoods" like Southtown.
Ferris has been seeking a location to open a second coffee shop. But his main criterion is that it has to be embedded in a true community, and that's been difficult to find.
"I talk to our staff about why they enjoy their working environment, and so much of it is our community," he says. "Our staff know their neighbors, not just a little bit, but well. We're a part of their lives, and that makes work enjoyable."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.