How Farmington turned a ‘busted-up asphalt parking lot’ into a lively community hub

Visitors to downtown Farmington often seek the same things that have inspired others to make the small town their permanent home: warmth, energy, and connection.


“People who live here want to know their neighbors and be around others,” says Farmington Mayor (and architect) Steven Schneemann.


“They’ve moved here because they wanted to have that sense of community. And as a place-maker, as an architect, I can tell you that that’s not just about the character of the people. The physical, built environment of a place can encourage and celebrate and enrich and build on that community spirit. That’s been my passion since I got involved with the city planning commission.”


Indeed, Schneemann has played no small rolesince moving to Farmington from California in the 1990sin the evolution of Farmington’s downtown.

Steve Schneeman, Farmington Mayor. Photo by David Lewinski.


“Before we had Riley Park,” says Schneemann, referring to the space (with a pavilion) that’s now home to a popular weekly farmer’s market, outdoor concert series, and swing dance night in summer, and a skating rink in winter, “we had a pile of busted up asphalt in a parking lot. But we wanted to create a place where Farmington’s spirit could be nurtured.”


How Farmington found its swing


And so it has been. Something that organically took root shortly after the 2005 introduction of Sundquist Pavilion and Riley Park, for example, involved a group of area families wanting to give their home-schooled teens a regular occasion to socialize.


“One night, one kid brought out a guitar amp and a computer, and some of the kids starting doing some dancing, and it just caught on,” says Alexander Steward, DJ and organizer (since 2011) of Swing Farmington. “They kept meeting up at the pavilion, and it just became a weekly thing.”


Swing Farmington soon became a cultural fixture, drawing approximately 200 (mostly) high school, college-age, and twentysomething attendees from across the Detroit metro area each Thursday night during the summer. (During the winter months, Swing Farmington moves into St. John Lutheran Church and continues to draw between 50-60 dancers each week.)


“When I was a freshman at Schoolcraft College, I got to know some people who attended, and I had absolutely no interest in it,” says Steward. “They kept trying to get me to come, and I finally decided to do it one day, just to get them off my back. I thought I’d just come say hello to a couple of people and leave, but then I walked in, and they started to teach me how to swing dance, which was fun, and I saw people I hadn’t seen in a long time, and I met some new people, and I really enjoyed the music. I was just really blessed by it.”


Steward believes the venue has a lot to do with Swing Farmington’s success and longevity.


“Most towns don’t have a pavilion like that, because it has all these amenities,” says Steward. “It’s a lot larger than others; and it has this great park, so there’s more dance space, and it’s right by all these businesses. There’s a vibrancy that comes with that. It’s such a unique experience to dance outside, right in the middle of a downtown. So with this great facility, kids think, ‘Hey, I can come and feel welcome, and meet new people, and learn how to dance.’


"And a lot of kids don’t even dance. They just come, go to Starbucks, watch some dancers, and maybe try a line dance or something. They just love the vibrancy there. And that’s what we base everything around. We want everyone to feel welcome there. It always feels special when you go.”


“Eclecticism attracts more eclecticism”


Echoes of Swing Farmington’s youthful energy can be felt throughout downtown’s business corridor.


“We’re kind of a hip place now,” says Schneemann. “We’ve got the Farmington Brewery, the skateboarding shop (Plus), we’ve got kombucha (Neu Kombucha), a tattoo parlor (Evolve), and one of the better known vegan restaurants in the area, Chive. So we’ve got a really eclectic mix of not only people but businesses as well.”


Yes, alongside Millennial-friendly businesses like Browndog Barlor & Restaurant (a small batch artisan ice cream place with a full bar), Farmington also has Korner Barbers, which has been in business for more than half a century; a landmark, renovated second-run movie theater (Farmington Civic Theater), originally built in 1940, that’s now owned by the city; John Cowley & Sons Irish Pub, a family-owned business that first put down roots (as Cowley’s Old Village Inn) in 1972; and old, tree-lined neighborhoods that still occasionally play host to block parties.

Food and camaraderie are frequently on hand in Farmington's Sundquist Pavilion.


(Memorably, after posting a photo from my street’s block party on social media one year, a friend wrote, “So what highway do you need to take, exactly, to visit you in the year 1955? Because the neighborhood stuff you post about doesn’t happen anywhere else.”)


“Eclecticism attracts more eclecticism,” Schneemann says. “ … And people love the small town feel of Farmington. We’ve been able to kind of have our cake and eat it, too. We’ve got this great, small-town vibe and spirit, yet we’re also part of this larger metro area, so we have all the benefits of a metro area’s arts and culture scene, and an international airport just a half hour away, and not too far from industrial centers. We have this beautiful little Shangri-La. … We’re a bargain for what you get. We’ve been spoiled in that way.”


Farmington’s relative affordability, when compared to other nearby cities with a walkable downtown, ultimately plays a big role in the town’s identity, too, because “it attracts a more unique swath of residents, … not just those with the wherewithal to have a $700,000 mortgage,” says Schneemann. “I like that in addition to ethnic diversity, we also have economic diversity.”


“It just feels more down to earth,” says Julia Mantey, a Wayne State University research assistant who moved to downtown Farmington after finishing graduate school at the University of Michigan. (Mantey’s parents, Kendra and Joe, own The Cheese Lady in downtown Farmington, and her husband Kyle Tackett is the store’s manager.) “ … Farmington reminds me of Iowa City, which is where I went to college. … There’s more of a townie atmosphere, which is something I love about it. People know each other’s names, and you pretty much always run into people you know.”


Plus, Mantey had previously spent a year teaching in India, so Farmington’s Indian groceries and restaurants – and regular cricket games on a neighborhood school’s baseball diamond – were an additional draw.


A new kind of old-fashioned small town


This raises the question: does Farmington simply attract those already looking for diversity and connection, or does the town somehow teach residents and visitors to value these things?


Probably a little of both.


It’s a new kind of old-fashioned small town.


“It’s always amazed and pleased us that there are so many people in and around Downtown Farmington who value what we have going on here, and who understand that it takes all of us to keep it going successfully,” says Becky Burns, who co-owns Sunflour Bakehaus with her husband, Jeff Pavlik.


And it’s worth noting that the collaborative spirit of the town extends to its downtown businesses, so you’ll regularly see loaves of Sunflour bread on sale at The Cheese Lady, and Sunflour brownies made with the latest offering from the Farmington Brewery, to name just two examples.


“It’s a front-porch community,” says Farmington City Councilwoman Maria Taylor. “People sit outside, they wave to you as you walk by, and we keep our porch lights on at night.”


“My wife and I live downtown Farmington, and I like that much of life is close by,” says Civic Theater manager Scott Freeman. “Groceries, hardware, restaurants, a library, and movies are all right in town. … Farmington seems to attract those that like a small town with a solid core.”


As the first snows arrive, of course, thoughts turn to the holidays, and Farmington’s annual community tree-lighting at the historic Governor Warner Mansion, and the ice rink that will soon be open again at Farmington’s Riley Park.


For Taylor, thoughts of the open-air rink called up a recent memory that, in some ways, definitively captures the feel of Farmington.

Scott Freeman, Farmington Civic Theater. Photo by David Lewinski.


“I was looking through some of my photos from the past year for inspiration, and one of them that stood out was the Glow Skate event last year at the Riley Park ice rink,” Taylor says. “You had kids and families and young people and senior citizens, all chatting and skating and hanging out with their neighbors and friends in the heart of Farmington’s downtown.


“It’s the quintessential small-town winter activity, as the music pulsed and lights shifted colors overhead, with our timeless historic streetscape as the perfect backdrop to the activity below. No doubt about it, it’s a family town, and there’s something fun for everyone if you look for it. And if you see something that you think it lacks--there’s usually a couple of other folks who are willing to work with you to bring your vision to life.”

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