Officials at the city of Ecorse have a bold vision for transforming their community into a commercial, recreational, and residential hub – and they've got a broad range of economic development strategies to make it a reality.
Since Ecorse came out of state receivership in 2017, city staff have been working hard to plan a bright new future for their community. Along with city leaders, they've developed a comprehensive plan to revitalize West Jefferson Avenue, the city's main thoroughfare, and turn it into a walkable mixed-use corridor connected to a newly activated Detroit riverfront. They're working to redevelop the city-owned 58-acre Mill Street site. And they're re-envisioning Ecorse Creek as a well-trafficked site for outdoor recreation.
However, City Administrator Richard Marsh says a full arsenal of economic development tools will be needed to see all those goals through.
“It’s going to take a variety of resources," Marsh says. "It’s going to take partnerships and collaboration because obviously Ecorse can’t do it alone.”
Here are a few of the key strategies Ecorse is using to realize a revitalized future.
Marsh says blight elimination is "so essential" to the city's vision for economic redevelopment, particularly its plans for the Jefferson corridor.
"Without the blight elimination, you can’t retain what you have and you can’t attract anything new," he says. "It has to be a high priority to eliminate eyesores, the vacant buildings that can be torn down.”
Ecorse Community Development Manager Terri Beaumont says the community has been working on demolishing blighted structures since 2015 when a Michigan State Housing Development Authority Hardest Hit grant allowed Ecorse to demolish 180 properties. Wayne County Community Development Block Grants have funded the demolition of another 30-plus property since then and helped the community defray costs of its code enforcement officers.
Beaumont says the city is currently planning to demolish several properties on Jefferson, including an old car wash, an old restaurant, and two houses. She and other city staff hope to see mixed-use developments with street-level commercial usage and second-floor apartments arise where the blight once stood. But Ecorse Mayor Lamar Tidwell says in any case, he'd "rather have empty lots than an old, beat-up building."
"We've still got challenges and we've still got problems, but Rome wasn't built overnight," says Tidwell, who has made blight elimination a priority since he was elected mayor in 2013. "You've got to just keep chipping away."
Ecorse Mayor Lamar Tidwell. Photo by David Lewinski
Another crucial part of Ecorse's economic development strategy has been building partnerships with numerous community organizations and governmental bodies at the local and state level. The city's partners include Wayne County, Lincoln Park, Wyandotte, River Rouge, the Michigan State Department of Treasury, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), the Downriver Community Conference, the Detroit International Wildlife Refuge, Riverside Kayak Connection, the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation, and many others. Some are providing funding, while others offer strategic input.
"I can never overemphasize the fact of how supportive and critical they’ve been to getting us where we are today," Marsh says.
Partners meeting to plan for the future of the Mill Street Development site. Photo by David Lewinski.
Finding funding through new and existing partnerships is particularly key to Ecorse's upcoming efforts to do environmental cleanup work on both the Mill Street site and Ecorse Creek. The city is currently conducting an environmental assessment at Mill Street, but Marsh says any potential cleanup likely won't be a challenge thanks to the brownfield grant funding available to the city through its partners at the Downriver Community Conference and EGLE.
A different kind of cleanup is key to the city's strategy for increasing Ecorse Creek's appeal to kayakers and other outdoor enthusiasts. Marsh says the city has applied for a $100,000 Southeast Michigan Resilience Fund grant to improve habitat quality and improve public space.
“There’s no contamination in the creek, but we desire to enhance its curb appeal," Marsh says. "We’re going to put some benches and lighting along the creek as well.”
Building a DDA
Ecorse is also in the process of re-establishing its Downtown Development Authority (DDA), which will be instrumental in carrying out the changes outlined in the city's West Jefferson Corridor Plan. City staff are currently identifying potential DDA board members and considering the boundaries of the DDA's jurisdiction.
"It would be a coordinating body," says Sally Hodges, planning consultant at Ecorse city planner McKenna. "They would seek grants, look for funding alternatives, and work towards implementing all those goals in the West Jefferson plan. And through the DDA, tax increment financing for Ecorse public improvements is a possibility."
Condos along the West Jefferson Corridor. Photo by David Lewinski.
The DDA will meet monthly, in addition to quarterly joint meetings with neighboring River Rouge's DDA. The joint meetings will allow the two DDAs to collaborate in improving the Jefferson corridor in a unified way through both communities.
Marsh says the city's efforts to revitalize Jefferson and the riverfront are "intertwined," especially given the West Jefferson Corridor Plan's proposal for redeveloping a 24-acre former U.S. Steel site between Jefferson and the river. As a result, the DDA will be heavily involved with the riverfront project. But Hodges says the DDA will also have broad positive spin-offs for all the city's revitalization efforts, including the Mill Street site, Ecorse Creek, and others.
"Simply having a DDA will strengthen the city’s image and the success rate for all kinds of development, because the DDA shows the commitment of the elected bodies and the involvement of the businesses," she says.
A critical goal
Hodges says all these strategies are in service of a critical goal: repopulation.
"Repopulating the community is essential to halting decline and making it a desirable place for people and for businesses," she says. "Without population, you can't support commercial development. People want to live near where they work and where they can walk to services if there are good, desirable residential alternatives."
To make that happen, she says, "it's all about maintaining the teams, keeping the focus, keeping it moving, and working together to make it happen." Tidwell agrees, noting that the community is "just chipping away little by little" to realize the dream of a community known for its mixed-use developments, outdoor recreation, and pedestrian- and bike-friendliness.
"We think Ecorse is one of Downriver's best-kept secrets," he says. "I always tell people we're 15 minutes from the airport, we're 15 minutes from downtown, we're eight minutes from the train station, and we're right on the water."
Marsh says the city's main challenge is to maintain focus on its vision and persevere.
“We have to understand that progress doesn’t come without some kind of struggle, and it will take time," he says. "But it will happen. It didn’t happen like this overnight, and it won’t be revitalized and turned around overnight.”