Finding the center in Center Line

On an early January day, Dennis Champine is preparing for a new year in the city of Center Line. It's one he hopes will bring change to this stalwart blue-collar town in southwest Macomb County.

Champine, who serves as city manager and director of the city's Downtown Development Authority, is working on building a town center at the intersection of Van Dyke and 10 Mile Rd. He's building on plans and ordinances adopted over the past year and a half which lay the groundwork for change in a city that has seen little of it in recent memory.

For Champine, who was born and raised just about a half-mile to the south of his office on 10 Mile, the plan represents a way to move his city into the future.

"This is my stomping grounds," he claims with pride. "This is where I hung out as a kid, and it has been a big part of my life as an adult as well."

Center Line is a residential and manufacturing town of approximately 8,100 people. It's geographically surrounded by the state's third-largest city, Warren, with 135,000 residents and an even larger daytime population owing to workers at the GM Technical Center.

At present, there's little to physically differentiate Center Line from its behemoth neighbor. The main thoroughfares connecting the two cities, 10 Mile and Van Dyke, contain a similar mix of manufacturing, retail, restaurants and car dealerships surrounded by older housing stock.

But Champine wants to see that change. He's hoping to attract and retain millennials to the city, which has a median age of 41. And that means building the amenities millennials want.

Dennis Champine. Photo by David Lewinski.

"My goal is to create a downtown for our city that still gives you that small-town lifestyle and feel, but also reaches out to the larger population that surrounds us," he says. "Southwest Macomb County doesn't really have a downtown. And we're going to take advantage of that."

A revived Downtown Development Authority

Champine is partnering closely with mayor Bob Binson, who took office in September of 2015 shortly after Champine assumed his dual roles at the city. Their vision for Van Dyke at 10 Mile is a walkable village district with storefront retail on the first floor and residential uses above. He'd love to see a craft brewery somewhere in the mix.

To implement this vision, the city has reactivated its Downtown Development Authority. The DDA had been in place since 1999, and a tax Increment financing program (TIF) in place since that time generated revenue over the years, but little in the way of concerted action.

"There was no plan," says Champine. "No one in city government was pushing for development in the downtown district."

Under Champine and Binson, the city has revived the DDA, updated the DDA master plan and instituted an innovative facade improvement grant program for businesses that emphasizes green infrastructure. Other planned programs include gateway signage, enhanced wayfinding, streetscape maintenance and online marketing.

Mayor Bob Binson in his office at Binson's Medical Equipment & Supply. Photo by David Lewinski.

And a new zoning code, adopted in December, designates a "City Center Redevelopment District" along Van Dyke from Stephens to just north of 10 Mile. The code allows for three-to-four story structures in the district built right up to the sidewalk line.

"We are looking to have something unique to single us out from Warren, because you've got to come through Warren to get to us," says Binson. He thinks the city can offer something more to lunchtime crowds near the GM Tech Center who frequent the adjacent Applebee's and Olive Garden.

"We would like to make people want to drive past them and come to see us," he says. He points to existing city gems like the Te Roma bar, Martin's Ham & Cornbeef, the Dairy Freezzz and Butter-Nut Bakery as providing a solid foundation for future business growth.

"The hardest part will be changing the perception that we are part of Warren," says Binson. "We've been an independent city for 80 years."

Overcoming challenges

According to Center Line's long-time planning consultant, Dave Scurto of Carlisle Wortman Associates, the city has already overcome the biggest hurdle.

"The first challenge is getting the willpower, and getting a champion," says Scurto. "Center Line has overcome this fantastically. Everybody's working together with the same vision and message. The mayor and the council understand the business community."

That's important for attracting private development, says Scurto, because potential investors want to know that everything's running smoothly in city administration.

Scurto, who has been working with the city since 1990, says a big challenge associated with redeveloping older communities like Center Line is their existing infrastructure.

"They've got buildings in place," he says. "You have smaller blocks and existing infrastructure that new developers may want to get rid of. So costs associated with demolition go up compared with someone going to develop a greenfield. But it can be done."

David Scurto at City of Center Line offices. Photo by David Lewinski.

Scurto points to another of his clients, the City of Riverview, as an example of what's possible when a city has a solid vision. That city took control of a site, paid off back taxes and worked out a deal with a developer to tear down an old shopping center to make way for a new medical complex.

Another challenge facing Center Line, according to Scurto, is the status of Van Dyke as a state trunkline, which may run counter to the city's goals for creating a pedestrian feel with easy business access. 
"On-street parking is important from a safety standpoint," says Scurto. "Right now in the outer lanes, people are driving 35-45 miles an hour, and a lot of these are semis. It is such a hostile environment to be on that sidewalk between a building and the curb."
Scurto notes that while the city may request amenities such as on-street parking from MDOT, which controls the road, they run the risk that the agency will remove the state trunkline designation to another road, such as Mound. That would leave the city and county responsible for seven lanes of traffic, which they may not have the capacity to maintain.

To address the situation, the city's master plan calls for the buildings to be set back to put a row of parking in front to give some physical separation.

Housing is another challenge. Center Line's post World-War II housing stock is affordable, yet it is also aging and smaller than what the current market desires. The city is diligent on code enforcement and is also open to working with homeowners on updates and renovations. A recent sidewalk program replaced much of the city's aging walkways.

Champine says he's motivated to make sure Center Line's neighborhoods remain stable in an effort to avoid the fate of neighborhoods like those of his childhood in nearby south Warren, which have deteriorated over time.

Crafting a new message

Beyond these physical constraints, says Scurto, is the challenge of public relations. He'd like to see cities like Center Line do more to tell their stories.

"I think many communities are so stuck in ordinances and plans," he says. "There's a whole marketing side that they need to interest people."

Center Line's major selling point, according to Scurto, is its close-knit, stable neighborhoods.

"We've got a very committed group of people. That's their story," says Scurto. "The mayor owns a big business, Binson's Medical Supply, and he could live anywhere he wants. But he chose to live in Center Line and send his kids to Center Line schools."

John Motyka, who has owned tattoo studio Elite Ink on Van Dyke for 23 years, agrees with that assessment. He was born two miles south of his shop and now lives two miles north of it.

"I'm definitely a local, local person," says Motyka. "I've been here all my life."

John Motyka at Elite Ink. Photo by David Lewinski.

Motyka, who also serves as president of the city's Center Line Business Association, would like to build up the city as a center for artists. To that end, he's working on opening a gallery next to his shop. He says that what sets Center Line apart is its residents.

"I think the people here really love living in a community that's affordable and down-to-earth," says Motyka. "In today's day and age, with advances in technology, it seems as though society is getting away from that type of interaction… the one-on-one discussions, taking time to talk to your neighbor. You don't see that so much these days because everybody's in a hurry."

"I think we're in a very unique city and we stand out. We may not be the biggest city in Michigan, but we certainly have the biggest heart."
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