Downriver communities aim to shed industrial image, reclaim waterfront


Eric Cedo is pastor of the Family Christian Church in Ecorse. He's also a marketing consultant who says he believes that the city's potential as a recreation destination is untapped. In a region that has traditionally relied on industry, Cedo's ideas may seem far-fetched to some. But he and a growing number of community-minded Downriver residents are betting that Ecorse can serve as the linchpin for a regional river-centered revival that would benefit all of the Downriver communities.


“Ecorse was actually once a summer destination for Detroit’s middle class,” Cedo says of the time before industrial expansion took over the city in the late 20th century. “For the working folks, Ecorse was this beach town, a resort community.” He believes reviving this tradition of fishing, boating and water access is the key to turning around the fortunes of a city that has been through receivership twice. The waterfront itself is particularly valuable. “They're not making more of it,” he says.

Eric Cedo. Photo by Nick Hagen.


Any economic gains from tourism or development will likely need to move on a parallel track with environmental improvements and investments in regional infrastructure. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — which runs the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge — is expanding its footprint in the area, a move that comes on the back of years of improved waterquality in the Great Lakes System.


However, the Detroit River continues to face environmental challenges and remains on the "Great Lakes Areas of Concern" list of the most polluted areas in the Great Lakes, with substantial quantities of contaminated sediment remaining to be cleaned up. And advocates for a diversified economy with a focus on recreation and nature are still fighting an uphill battle, particularly in Trenton where a large stretch of shoreline could be returned to industry by one of Matty Moroun’s companies, Crown Enterprises, which purchased the former McLouth Steel site on the riverfront in 2018.


But the shoreline recreational development work of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and provided a model for what investments in the waterfront can do for communities.


“I think it's improved the general image of the Detroit River,” David Howell, chairman of Friends of the Detroit River, says of the RiverWalk. His group has been instrumental in efforts to clean up the river and create access, especially in Downriver communities.


“When people see the river in a more pleasing light,” such as in Detroit and Windsor, Howell says, “They're not looking at cement silos anymore or factories that are dumping into the river…That makes the river seem more friendly.”


A new visitors center at the Humbug Marsh could be a key to looking at the Downriver area differently. The marsh is located in the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge that runs over roughly 48 miles of waterfront on 6,000 acres of non-contiguous land — roughly from Ecorse to Ohio border — and includes important habitat for migrating birds.


“We have a lot of traffic in the sky,” says Jennie Braatz, a park ranger naturalist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She's talking about the two major, migratory flyways that converge over the Detroit River. This makes for important stopover territory that allows these birds to survive their journeys.

Jennie Braatz. Photo by Nick Hagen.


With the new visitor center, Braatz hopes to connect more people with the refuge that includes many islands and wetlands that are not easily accessible. But more than that, Braatz says she wants to help people get involved with the environment more broadly. She says exhibits at the interpretive center, “incorporate humans into all of them”. And although taking action on climate change and the health of the Great Lakes can feel monumental, she believes her agency is offering small things that individuals can do that serve as “stepping stones to do more.”


“I hope that [the refuge] connects people more to their own backyards, literally to where they wake up every day,” Braatz says. "You don't have to go up north to connect to nature and have these spiritual experiences outside. They are right here.”


This parallels rather neatly the shift in mindset that Pastor Cedo is looking to see Downriver, where just a generation ago environmentalism might have been seen as anathema to an area focused on industry and labor. Industry, he says, “almost created Downriver”.


Yet, he adds, “focusing on conservation and the environment is actually good business… it's not a zero-sum game between business, economics, and the environment.”


Progressive vision needed


Downriver communities likely have a way to go before the vision of folks like Cedo comes to fruition. The Moroun purchase presents one significant obstacle, according to John Hartig, visiting scholar at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor. The waterfront parcel that occupies more than a mile of shoreline has been described as “the ugliest thing Downriver,” according to Hartig.

John and Patricia Hartig. Photo by Nick Hagen.


Although it’s unclear what Crown’s intention for the property is, John’s wife – community activist, lawyer and former mayor of Trenton – Patricia Hartig believes that Moroun is looking to use it as a multi-modal transportation center, taking advantage of its deepwater port, railroad access and proximity to I-75.


This move would probably hinge on the city of Trenton rezoning the site from mixed-use to industrial, and would also require the federal government to complete the cleanup of the area — a Superfund site — which would be completed at no cost to Moroun. (Patricia Hartig and other citizens are challenging the proposed zoning change.)


She hopes that a compromise could be struck with Moroun, leaving some of the property for a mixed-use development that would help chart a course forward from the area’s industrial past.


“There's no reason why we can't try and work with him to let him do what he wants to do… there are ways of making these things work in harmony.”


But Moroun, owner of the Michigan Central Station — which sat abandoned for years and became a symbol of blight in Detroit— perhaps doesn’t have the best reputation for turning around properties.


On the other side of Trenton’s historic Elizabeth Park from the McLouth site is DTE Energy’s soon-to-be decommissioned Trenton Channel Power Plant. John Hartig hopes that the power company could be a community partner in renovating this site, which could connect the park with the Humbug Marsh just to the south. Both he and Patricia say that what the community needs is champions, the sorts of high-profile politicians and business people that can bring attention to an area that is often overlooked.


Hartig says that former congressman John Dingell who — despite a mixed environmental record — contributed to the preservation of the Detroit River, along with businessman Peter Stroh. “He was connected to the river personally,” he says of Dingell. “And he said, I want future generations of kids to be connected to this river like I was.”


Without such progressive leadership, Hartig says, a transition to a more nature- and recreation-based economy will not go forward.


But seeds of growth in a local water-based recreation economy are evident in the area. Hartig points to several businesses like Wild Birds Unlimited, Humbug Marina and Riverside Kayak Connection have been expanding in the area, with Riverside now offering kayak rental in Elizabeth Park. Both he and Cedo stress the need for further development, citing the lack of hotels, Airbnbs and regular B&Bs that could accommodate visitors to the International Wildlife Refuge.


Hartig says that tapping into the beauty and natural resources of the area could also build a more stable and diverse tax base for cities like Trenton that currently depend on the DTE plant for significant revenue. For Cedo, it’s also about ethical considerations and how he sets an example as a pastor as well as a developer.


“Should we be protectors of the environment,” Cedo asks, “or should we be polluters?”

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