“You missed every drop!”
It’s a rainy Wednesday and Lou Weinstein is chiding a solitary early lunchtime customer. In the dash from the F-150 parked out front to the deli’s door, the customer’s shirt was barely wet despite the constant drizzle outside.
Weinstein has owned Mati’s Deli, located at 1842 Monroe in West Dearborn, for the last 29 years. Weather affects business, and based on the forecast it doesn’t look like the patio will be filled anytime soon. What’s impacting his deli most these days isn’t rain, though, it’s something else he can’t control: traffic, or more precisely, the lack thereof.
For the last two years, Monroe has been quieter than normal thanks to Ford’s Wagner Place renovation project. The historic 123-year-old hotel is undergoing a facelift and will become the centerpiece of downtown West Dearborn once construction is complete. The project was announced in late 2016, and ground broke the following year. For now, though, it’s little more than a $60 million roadblock separating traffic from Michigan Avenue and Monroe.
“That’s been a killer,” Weinstein admits.
Like many small business owners on Monroe, Weinstein keeps his money in the neighborhood. Across the street is Westborn Cleaners, where Weinstein has his tailoring done and hockey gloves re-palmed. Down the block is Dearborn Offset Printing, which prints Mati’s menus.
Monroe is also the street where he fills his prescriptions and where his dentist is located. While there’s plenty of retail and entrepreneurship, Monroe is primarily medical offices, earning it the unofficial nickname “Doctor’s Row.”
Dr. Lobna Fakih opened her pediatric and adolescent practice at 2547 Monroe in 2005. She says it's an ideal location for her because of all the medical facilities. There are ophthalmologists, allergy specialists, dermatologists, chiropractors, a pharmacy and more all butted up against the Ford Homes historic district. And like Dearborn’s twin downtowns and Krogers across from one another, there are two DaVita dialysis clinics facing each other near Beech, and two oral surgeons’ offices across from one another.
Dr. Lobna Fakih. Photo by Timothy J. SeppalaThe Monroe doctors are close colleagues, working together at the nearby Beaumont campus, and as such, if one of Fakih’s patients needs to see a specialist quickly, it doesn’t take more than a phone call. And given her proximity to Beaumont Dearborn, should a patient need acute care, EMS is extremely close by. Her neighbors also welcome referrals and new patients on an urgent basis.
“They’re accommodating because we know each other,” she says. “It’s like a family on the street.”
Unlike the Warren Avenue Business and Shopping District or the Dix-Vernor Commercial Corridor, Monroe’s business density is too low for it to gain designation as an established business district, says Cristina Sheppard-Decius, Downtown Dearborn Executive Director.
“It’s a district that has come up on its own,” she says.
For now, that means certain tools and incentives from the city are not available to small businesses here. According to Sheppard-Decius, the next best thing would be for the business community to join together organically.
By forming a business improvement district, for example, commercial properties on the corridor could pool their resources for maintenance and beautification. Sheppard-Decius saw those crop up in Detroit, with businesses making improvements to security with the funds.
Craig Burwitz has owned Beech-Monroe Auto Service, located at 1410 Monroe, for the last three-and-a-half years. Most of his clientele is located within an eight block radius. The medical professionals like it because they can drop their car off in the morning, walk to work and, when they’re done for the day, walk back and pick up their vehicle.
Craig Burwitz sits behind his desk at Beech-Monroe Auto Service. Photo by Timothy J. SeppalaWhile he was running a service station in Ferndale in the mid-90s, Burwitz was part of a loosely organized group of garage-owners that would meet up to talk shop. There weren’t any dues or taxes; it was a way to build camaraderie. He isn’t sure how a self-funded business improvement district would change anything for his garage. Burwitz wouldn’t mind getting to know more of his neighbors though.
“It’d probably help to sit down with people and shoot the breeze,” he says.
Closer to Telegraph Road, at the intersection of Monroe and Carlysle, is a five-unit strip mall nestled in a residential neighborhood, owned by Ray Alcodray. When he purchased the structure in late 2013, it was in utter disrepair. He renovated the spaces one at a time and invested around $10,000 to get the first unit rentable.
“There was a deep hole we had to dig ourselves out of,” he says.
Alcodray has spent nearly $75,000 updating the mall’s facade and doing general modernizations. By his estimate, charging roughly $12 per square foot for rent, it will take between four and five years — at full occupancy — for the improvements to pay for themselves.
Every business owner I spoke to had a different set of concerns. Universally though, they see a bright future for the Monroe corridor. There are buildings that need updating, sure, but as they sell, that’ll happen as a matter of course, says Opal Thomas, owner of Just Breathe Massage and Wellness. Thomas has worked up and down Monroe for 15 years and has operated out of her current office a block from Mati’s Deli at 1952 Monroe for over a year. Most of the change has happened since Ford’s 10 Year Plan announcement in late 2016, and as infrastructure has adapted to accommodate the new Ford employees.
The barrier at the Monroe-Michigan intersection will be removed for Ford’s Wagner Park opening celebration June 7th and will reopen to traffic the next day, according to Sheppard-Decius. If all goes according to plan, a year from now, business owners think we’ll see more people on the sidewalks.
“It’ll be hoppin’,” Thomas says.
Weinstein had similar thoughts, and says that Ford’s investment has “jumped everything up.” He’s excited about what Monroe will look like once construction at the Michigan intersection is complete and traffic flow is back to normal. In fact, most of Weinstein’s business comes from Ford employees, so more of them translates to new potential customers.
“I think it’s a win-win for all the small business people,” she says.