Van Buren Township downtown officials create vibrancy and a sense of community

Belleville Road overpass This is part of a series led by the Michigan Downtown Association, celebrating 40 years of continuous improvement of Michigan communities and downtowns. Additional support also from Van Buren Township's Downtown Development Authority.

The placement of a grassy commons in Van Buren Township is part of an overall strategy to create a downtown district with a small-town feel while removing the focus of a major highway that runs right through it.

That commons area, Harris Park, represents a transformational moment in the history and future of the township, says Lisa Lothringer, Assistant Executive Director for the township’s Downtown Development Authority.

“The biggest challenge is that people don’t think of it as a downtown, they think of it more as a shopping corridor that’s part of the reason why creating Harris Park was so important. It gives our residents and visitors to the community a bit of a respite in the middle of what can be a chaotic world,” Lothringer says.

The park includes a walking path, benches, picnic tables, a pergola, and a pavilion, free Wi-Fi access, and device charging stations.

Picnic tables under a covered shelter at Harris Park were used a lot this past summer and fall by township residents and visitors. Photo by David LewinskySince it opened in 2019, use of the park has exceeded the expectations of DDA leadership. Their offices are located in a building on the park property that also includes a conference room. That building was intentionally designed to replicate the home of the Harris family who owned the property that now encompasses the park which bears their name as a tribute to the many significant contributions they made to the community.

“The daughters of the family have been by and when each of them has stepped into the building and walked around, they both started crying because we built the building in the same shape as the house was,” Lothringer says. “My office is where one of the bedrooms once was. It was important to us to honor the original structure.”

From that office, she has been able to see individuals, families, and children working and playing. The park also played host to two weddings.

“I saw a lot of people during the summer that came here with food bags from some of the local restaurants,” Lothringer says. “We’ve had a lot of different groups come here because they can eat outside. We also had a karate studio and a dance studio that both brought their classes out here and had outdoor classrooms. This gave them a place to be able to still do what they needed to do to pay their bills.”

Those living in residential areas that include subdivisions, condominiums, and apartments easily access the park via pathways. There are seven residential areas that also feed into the DDA boundaries.

“We have all of the pedestrian connections for people to get here so they can park their cars and get where they want to go,” says Susan Ireland, DDA Director.

Those connections include a pedestrian bridge that runs parallel to Belleville Road over I-94 which was completed in 2019. Funding for that overpass came from the Michigan Department of Transportation and the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments shortly after work began on Harris Park.

Prior to the availability of the pedestrian overpass, people had to walk on the side of the roadway with high volumes of traffic traveling at high rates of speed.

“It’s cool to see how many people walk or bicycle across that bridge every day, it’s been very well- received,” Lothringer says.

But, there had been other road improvements going on before this. In 2012 Bellville Road was re-done and new traffic signals were installed. Two years later, the intersection of Belleville Road was identified as one of the worst intersections in Michigan leading to a total reconfiguring of that intersection.

“It’s been a very busy couple of years for us,” Lothringer says.

It wasn’t always this way

Van Buren Township was established in 1835 and named after the eighth U.S. President, Martin Van Buren. It’s an original population of 500 grew quickly as a result of major improvements to the township’s infrastructure, including the construction of railroads; formation of Belleville Lake, which is Wayne County’s largest inland lake encompassing 1,200 acres; and the development of airports and building of the Bomber Highway (now I-94).

The township now has a population of more than 30,000 many of whom work in neighboring communities, including Ann Arbor and Detroit.

That growth in population has been spurred by the close proximity of the township to larger communities and the work of the DDA to literally remove roadblocks to doing business. Since 1990, the DDA has completed more than $31 million of projects that have resulted in easier access to the downtown district and placemaking.

While many of these projects have focused on roads, they also have included the development of Quirk Park and the installation of a splash pad there earlier this year in addition to the pedestrian bridge and Harris Park.

Major events in the history of the township's downtown district. Design by Kathy TylerWhen Ireland was hired as the township’s DDA director in 2011, she says the downtown area was a two-lane road with numerous vacant properties and there was a lot of work to be done.

The presence of Interstate 94 which essentially divides one side of the township’s shopping district from the other was a major hurdle that represented some unique challenges for business owners who have developed their own strategies to bring people in.

For Joe Baskin, owner of Joe Edward Salon at 11792 Belleville Road, this means getting to know the other business owners in the downtown district and making sure they have his business cards and that he has theirs.

Joe Baskin, owner of Joe Edward Salon, says the DDA has worked hard to ensure the success of businesses like his. Photo by David Lewinsky

Maria’s Party Store and Anytime Fitness are among the businesses located in the same plaza as Baskin’s hair salon.

“We always swap cards and when we get low on those we’ve shared and helped each other. We all give positive feedback to help each other’s businesses grow,” Baskin says. “Anytime Fitness used to be a Powerhouse Gym and when the owner of Anytime was thinking of taking over Powerhouse, he asked me how I felt about this place. We’ve helped a lot of businesses continue to grow as they move in. We’ve literally helped each other.”

Baskin, who was born and raised in Belleville, says he was fortunate because the salon that he opened in 2003 had been operating under a different name at that same location for more than 20 years. When the salon owner, Derek Thomas, asked Baskin if he was interested, he said “yes.” Baskin had worked with Thomas in the mid-1990’s before traveling the country to gain more experience in cosmetology and hairstyling.

However, he did have some misgivings.

“There were not a lot of businesses that had been here for years, because of that I was kind of concerned about whether I could make it work,” Baskin says. “But, this is home for me and I wanted to bring it home.”

In addition to his Belleville Road location, he opened two salons in Wayne County that eventually closed because he had a difficult time finding stylists that shared his same level of commitment.

He considers his Belleville Road Salon a catalyst for growth and a cornerstone in the township’s downtown district. He says he and stylists don’t wait for traffic to come in and will stand outside the salon to create initial touchpoints with potential customers.

“We create attention. You have to be aggressive,” Baskin says. “Customer service is built on relationships. There’s a lot of intimacy with being a hairdresser because people share with you what they wouldn’t share with others. Our salon is a very intimate and sacred place and we pride ourselves on that. We have people coming from Ann Arbor, Florida, Texas, and surrounding cities because we market that way.

“We take the blah out of everyday life. We create hairstyles based on your lifestyle.”

Michael Sleiman, the owner of True Wellness Pharmacy at 10824 Belleville Road also has incorporated a focus on customer service into the way he does business. He purchased the location in February of this year from a pharmacist who had several locations in addition to the Belleville Road building that he was selling to CVS.

Michael Sleiman, owner of True Wellness Pharmacy, stands near shelves displaying the wide variety of products he has available. Photo by David Lewinsky“I was a team leader at a Meijer pharmacy downriver for about four years and I didn’t like the way that pharmacy was going,” Sleiman says. “It was a dream of mine to own my own pharmacy and spend time with patients. Here I can take my time with patients and talk to them and establish relationships with them.”

He has been busy getting the word out that he is here and offers expertise and items that other pharmacies don’t have. He says he is bringing a holistic approach so that people have the option of seeking treatments that involve supplements and vitamins.

“People want to be healthy. I carry a lot of unique brands that aren’t available at pharmacy chains nearby and I try to incorporate things like that along with their medications. I have a patient who’s been diabetic for 10 years and she wanted to get off of a certain medication and I talked to her about how she can change her diet a little bit and start walking a little more and after doing that she went back to her doctor and her sugar levels were normal.”

He has been working to build his customer by attracting people from the township and Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. He says he does have a clientele from outside of the township limits.

“So far it’s going in a positive direction,” Sleiman says. “Each month more and more people know that I’m here.”

At the same time, he is working with other businesses to create a sense of community. In August he did a food drive and gave out more than 100 boxes of food to help those hardest hit by COVID-19.

Growing on the successes

Both Baskin and Sleiman say that the DDA has been very supportive which has been a key contributor to the success of their businesses and others.

Sleiman says Lothringer publicized his business via social media and found other ways to let people know about the pharmacy.

“A lot of the great changes happened when the DDA started to redevelop the area and take the initiative in re-developing smaller businesses. A lot more businesses are coming in with a better understanding of the demographics of each and every household,” Baskin says.

Lothringer says the DDA will continue its efforts to promote the township and its downtown business district, while also beginning a sidewalk project in 2021.

“In the spring of 2021, we’ll put in new sidewalks. The whole goal is to make the township and its downtown district more pedestrian and bike-friendly,” she says. “Walkability is something more and more people look for in a community.”

“The DDA is doing an amazing job with walking areas and the bridge and there’s more than small independent businesses could do to create the traffic,” Baskin says.

But, the specter of COVID-19 continues to loom large and Lothringer says the ability to move forward depends on the containment of the virus.

"We have to get through COVID first. I hope that when we come out of this, we’ll have all of the businesses still there. I want to bring in SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) and the SBA (Small Business Administration) to help our small business owners bring their businesses back. We are all going to play an important role in how we move forward from here.

“I think we’re headed in the right direction.”

 

 

Q & A with Lisa Lothringer and Susan Ireland
Q & A with Lisa Lothringer and Susan Ireland
Issue Media: Sidebar Questions for DDA

Lisa Lothringer, Assistant Director of the Van Buren Township DDA, and Susan Ireland, Director of the Van Buren Township DDA, answer our questions about the downtown district.

 

 

What was the downtown district like when you joined the DDA?

 

Susan: I was hired in as the DDA’s fulltime director in 2011 at that time the downtown area was a two-lane road dotted with many vacant parcels.

 

Lisa: I will have been here for six years in January. What was true then and is still true today is that our downtown district is a five-lane highway that. It’s definitely not your traditional downtown and can never be because of ordinances in place in the Township. Most of what we have is new construction. It’s more like a corridor. We have a stretch that goes over I-94, coming out of Belleville Road to two lanes that then opens and carries over to the I-94 thruway and is five lanes until Tyler Road and then it goes down to one-lane roads in each direction.

 

 

How have you negotiated the challenge of having a major highway bisect your downtown district?

 

Susan: We have located a lot of businesses close to where our residents live so that they are walkable and accessible. In the summer of 2018, we got a grant from MDOT (Michigan Department of Transportation) and installed a non-motorized pathway over I-94. This was a way to connect one side of the Township to the other and the business district. We also installed pathways and sidewalks to make our area more walkable and bikeable.

 


What are some things your township is doing to achieve success?

 

Susan: We have done a lot to position our Township for success. We took on a project that resulted in significant improvements to one of the worst intersections in Wayne County. We were able to make it safer with the addition of ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) ramps and more appealing. We are one of the only DDA’s in the state of Michigan that’s able to bond on their own. We don’t need the township to pledge full faith and credit. Currently, we have three bond issues out.

 

We have a DDA board that’s extremely forward-thinking. They have made a list of projects for the next five years that will have a major impact within the DDA boundaries and on the community as a whole. One of those was the Splash Pad at Quirk Park which we chose to do for the children in our community.

 

 

What kinds of residences work in a downtown area? What is the right balance?

 

Susan: We have apartments and condos. We don’t have any loft-style buildings yet. We have single-family residential, going north of Tyler Road, which is where residents have opportunities for mixed-use options. We are beginning to look at offering more senior housing options so that people can continue to age in place.

 

Lisa: We are the sweet spot between Ann Arbor and Detroit and we have a huge variety of housing options.

 

What is the attraction of the Township for businesses and residents?

 

 

Lisa: There are things that we’d like to see out here, but it comes down to companies making sure that it fits their formula. With Panera, one of their requirements is that there is daytime office staff in the area and we currently have more manufacturing than offices and that’s what surrounds us. We don’t have that high-rise office building.

 

What we do have is a Meijer, Aldi, and Wal-Mart all within walking distance depending on where you live. We have everything here you’d want to stop off and get. If residents want a movie theater or a Dave & Buster’s, that’s a $100 night out and I don’t know if our area has people with that level of disposable income to support that. We offer the smaller, independently-owned atmosphere that you’re not going to find in a bigger city. People come here for that small-town feel knowing that they are closer to bigger city amenities, plus we’ve got six community parks.

 

Another advantage is that we are one of the few townships that has garbage pickup and a full-time fire and police department.

 

Susan: I think we have a pretty good mix. Businesses and people come to our Township because they want to be here.

 


When you want to make big changes, what's the most important thing to know starting out?

 

Lisa: Make sure you have the money. A lot of our projects have to go through Wayne County government officials. We don’t own, operate or control any roads in the township. To get road projects done, we have extra hoops we have to jump through. But we are also able to do projects most communities aren’t able to do like that pedestrian walkway over I-94.

 

 

What’s next for the Township?

 

Susan: We did three major projects in one year – the splash pad, I-94 overpass, and parks projects – that all happened at the same time and then COVID hit. The first project out of the gate for us in 2021 is sidewalk replacement throughout the entire DDA district. If they’re not ADA accessible, they’ll need to be repaired. We also are looking at the property along the I-94 service road which provided an easement that allows us to put a sidewalk in from the hotel to Belleville Road so people can walk to a nearby Cracker Barrel. All of that has to be done with the approval of Wayne County.