Ecorse sees new DDA as key to unlocking the Downriver city's potential

For Mayor Lamar Tidwell of Ecorse, the second of December was a date of great significance this year. While it might have been an unassuming Wednesday for many, in Ecorse it marked the first meeting of the city's new downtown development authority (DDA).


"It felt great," says Mayor Tidwell. "It's a long time coming. This is part of the process of turning Ecorse around. This DDA is very, very, very important!"

First established in Michigan in the mid-1970s, DDAs are special quasi-governmental organizations designed to spur the growth of a community's downtown district. They are formed as partnerships between the public and private sectors and empowered to raise funds through a variety of different methods for the purpose of implementing downtown improvement projects.


Due to the pandemic, Ecorse's first DDA meeting took place via an early morning Zoom conference attended by the members of the new authority: Mayor Tidwell, Mayor Pro Tem Darcel Brown, City Administrator Richard Marsh, business representatives from the Auburn Cafe, Midget Market, City Paint, U.S. Steel, and Linde Corporation (which operates a local industrial gas facility and pipeline system) and citizen representative Kelly Rose.


While the virtual nature of the format lacked some of the personal connection typically found at these types of gatherings, even through the computer screens there was still a celebratory spirit in the air during the assembly.


After a welcome from Mayor Tidwell, much of the meeting consisted of presentations by planners from McKenna. The consulting firm helped Ecorse lay out the plans and form its new DDA and will provide continued assistance as the DDA works to bring new life to the city's downtown.

Mayor Lamar Tidwell. Photo by David Lewinski.


Among other things, McKenna representatives explained the basic roles and responsibilities of downtown development authorities, shared examples about how they've been used in Michigan, and talked about possible funding strategies, as well as the fundamentals of a joint plan with neighboring River Rouge to develop a section of West Jefferson Avenue that runs through the two Downriver communities connecting Detroit with Wyandotte.


They also laid out the boundaries of the new DDA district, which generally include parcels on both sides of West Jefferson Avenue from River Rouge to Wyandotte. East of West Jefferson, the district extends to the Detroit River. The district also includes parts of Visger and Southfield Roads. The new board members wrapped things up that day with a discussion of what the authority's next steps should be, a conversation that will be continued at their next meeting in January.


City Administrator Marsh, who's been a champion of the new DDA since its earliest glimmers, came away from the meeting quite impressed with the new board.


"We have a very progressive group of board members," he says. "They're ready now. I saw it in their eyes during a couple of questions that were asked. I think we've got the right people to transform the downtown area of the city of Ecorse."


A catalyst for development


While there have been discussions about re-launching a DDA in Ecorse for many years, things really didn't get serious until Marsh came on board in November of 2017. The city had just recently come out of receivership. And because it still owed the state for loans, Ecorse needed to have a city administrator on staff to manage its debt, an arrangement required by Michigan law.


Looking at Ecorse's situation, Marsh saw a city with both challenges and opportunities. In addition to financial concerns, the community was also dealing with issues like derelict properties that complicated its efforts to turn a new corner. At the same time, Ecorse also occupied an enviable waterfront location along the Detroit River and was well-positioned to connect other Downriver communities with Detroit.


Richard Marsh. Photo by David Lewinski.

Having initiated or worked with DDAs in other cities like Benton Harbor, Jackson, and Inkster, Marsh felt a development authority in conjunction with other efforts like the redevelopment of Mill Street and the West Jefferson Corridor project could offer the community a much-wanted leg up.


"We needed an organization to be the catalyst for infrastructure improvement and blight removal, business expansion, business attraction, and business retention within our downtown," he says.


Michigan's Department of Treasury assisted with the effort, providing financing to prepare DDA plans and support for the process that established the DDA and its downtown district boundaries. Working with Mayor Tidwell and others in his administration, Marsh helped assemble the team that would become the DDA, who were then approved by Ecorse's city council. Mayor Pro Tem Brown, who serves on the council, feels the new authority holds a lot of promise.


"I'm excited to be able to play a role collaborating with the other board members to come up with ideas and incentives to draw businesses to our city," he says."[City Council and the DDA board] will be working hand-in-hand to move this project forward. "


'One piece at a time'

Setting up the new authority offers a lot of benefits for the city. The DDA improves Ecorse's eligibility for state grants and other funding connected to downtown development. It also draws attention to the downtown, opens doors for marketing and enhancements like streetscaping and beautification projects, and has the potential to help fund road, water, and sewer repairs, as well as other improvements through tax increment financing (TIF), a special form of funding open to DDAs.


Beyond that, as a legal entity, the new board can now partner with River Rouge's DDA on the implementation of the West Jefferson Corridor Plan, enhancing both cities' efforts to raise funding and attract interest in the project. The corridor plan calls for bike lanes, pedestrian accommodations, streetscaping, and other enhancements to the thoroughfare and seeks to highlight Ecorse and Rover Rouge as destination communities.


Jefferson along the Detroit River in Ecorse. Photo by David Lewinski.


Mayor Tidwell is thrilled that the new authority is now positioned to push the corridor project forward. He's also enthusiastic about its prospects for bringing more curb appeal to the downtown and improving its public image. Right now, he wants to see the DDA get off on the right foot, so it can encourage other local business owners to get involved with its efforts.


"I would like to see stability and to see if we can get some grant money to do some projects," he says. "Because once you get one project, you can say, 'Hey, this was done by the DDA,' then it gets more people involved."


As a member of the city council, Mayor Pro Tem Brown wants to assist the DDA in eliminating any "red tape" from the city that might get in the way of new businesses opening up downtown. He sees attracting new businesses who will employ local residents as a top priority for the new development authority


"Over the years, our tax base has eroded, he says. "We've had industry move out of the city, and there's also been a downslide in property values. I hope that the DDA can work to create incentives to bring in new businesses that will allow the city to prosper."


On that front, with support from Michigan's Department of Treasury, the city is currently conducting a housing retail market analysis to figure out what housing and retail options would make the best sense in Ecorse's downtown. That study is expected to be completed this coming February and should be an enormous help to the DDA in attracting new entrepreneurs to the city.


Johnny Gewarges is bullish about the potential of the new authority. As a DDA board member he represents Midget Market, a local grocery his family has owned since 1997; he's also a licensed builder and realtor.


"I don't think anything can stop Ecorse from being a great city," he says. "I'm willing to devote as much time as is required, as much as we can do."


Gewarges really enjoys being part of Ecorse's tight-knit business community but says for many years growth was hampered by a lack of momentum. With the DDA and other initiatives like the West Jefferson Corridor Project now online, he feels like that's finally changed.


Despite his optimism, he's well aware that he and his fellow board members have some big tasks ahead of him. For this reason, he thinks it's important to compartmentalize their work as much as possible.


"It's a big corridor," he says. "So we need to dissect it one piece at a time. Just take on a portion at a time, so it's not overwhelming."


Next steps


As the city administrator, Marsh thinks the DDA's focus at the moment needs to be helping existing businesses stay in the community by raising funds for improvements like new facades. Beyond that, he's interested in encouraging the construction of new condos and townhomes along the riverfront and building up the city's entertainment district.


Right now, the city administrator feels that Ecorse is well-positioned for growth. Over the last two-and-a-half years, he says the city has been able to raise $2.4 million in grants for different projects, and now has a great track record it can show to potential donors.


As for the new DDA, it's still in the early phases of coming together as a formal organization. When it meets next month, the board will need to elect officers and establish bylaws. From there, it will need to begin considering development and TIF plans and discuss setting up a joint meeting with River Rouge's DDA to move forward with the West Jefferson Corridor project.


Looking to the future, though, Marsh is confident the new board has what it takes to help move Ecorse in some exciting new directions.


"I see a lot of potential with the board we have and a lot of drive," he says. "The DDA is going to help fulfill some of the goals we have in making Ecorse a destination point on the Detroit River, full of housing, retail, and entertainment opportunities."

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Read more articles by David Sands.