Garden City looks to arts, retail to invigorate its future

Don Wakefield is a man with a plan. The sprawling 17,000-square-foot building in the heart of downtown Garden City where he now stands will one day soon, he hopes, house a regional art center.

His ambitious ideas include welcoming all kinds of art forms to the Wayne County suburb. Now, the Westland native is in the process of raising the renovation money to make it happen.  

“One of our goals is to develop the Great Lakes Art Center as the most exciting contemporary and fine art experience in Michigan,” Wakefield says.

The plan comes at a time when Garden City’s population is down, and retail has taken a hit with the closing of Kmart’s 58-year-old first location at Ford Road and Middlebelt Road. It was a landmark in the community, and now that the doors have closed, the vacant building has the potential of becoming an eyesore.

But city stakeholders are optimistic. 
“We’re looking at it as a positive and that we can redevelop that corner with sustainable businesses," says Garden City Downtown Development Authority Director Kim Dold. "The DDA is working with the city to try to be proactive and attract the type of businesses we would like to see in there. There is some talk about looking at a medical going in and we would like to see some retail and some restaurants to sustain the other businesses.”

“That will be a nice piece of property for someone to develop,” says Garden City Business Alliance President Kerry Partin, who also serves as the producer of the Garden City Community Chat podcast. 

“I see a bright future for Garden City.  Garden City is not only a great place to call home, but a perfect place to open a business.”

A place for firsts

In addition to being home to the first Kmart store, Garden City was also home to the first Little Caesars Pizza that was founded on May 8, 1959 by Mike and Marian Ilitch. The landmark site still sells pizza at this Cherry Hill location.  Another note in local history books is that McDonald’s chose the Garden City location at Ford Road and Middlebelt Road for its first sit-down restaurant. McDonald’s has talked about knocking down the current restaurant and building a new one in the same spot, Dold says. And Dunkin’ Donuts is expected to open at Ford Road and Harrison this year.

“We see new businesses come in all the time,” she says. “They’re not all huge businesses, some are mom-and-pop businesses, but those are the kind of businesses that keep communities thriving.”

The community’s largest employer is Garden City Hospital, which began as a vision of six local physicians in 1947.  The current building, on Inkster Road, opened its doors in April 1960. The hospital is currently in the midst of a $35 million renovation project.
The neighborhoods in town were originally patterned after the "garden city" plan that became popular in England during the 19th century, with most home sites sectioned off into 1-acre parcels to provide fruit and vegetable farming area. Now, of course, lots are much smaller in this dense community of 5.87 square miles.

Mayor Randy Walker, 59, has lived in Garden City since his parents moved to the middle class bedroom community when he was three.  He has seen areas in the community flourish, stumble through the recession and stand solid as new developments and changes are proposed.   

“In its heyday we had roughly 45,000 people,” says Walker, noting that that was when families typically had four or more children.  Today, many families have two children and the population has dwindled to 27,800, he says.

But Walker sees a strong loyalty among adults who were raised in the city and who want to stay. 

“A lot of the kids who grew up in Garden City bought their parents’ homes,” Walker said. “We’ve always been big on youth sports and we’re still a great middle class town.  We’re close to everything and not far from the malls, Detroit and football games in Ann Arbor. We have a great location.” 

And while there are fewer residents these days, there is a strong voice among community volunteers in sports programs, fighting crime and other programs. For instance, the Garden City Michigan Crime Reporting and Neighborhood Watch Patrol, which sends out volunteer watchdog patrols at all hours of the evening and early morning to deter crime, is lauded by residents who feel a little safer by their presence.

A future in the arts

Despite the hurdles in getting his project off the ground, Wakefield wants the art center to be a regional destination that will also be a launching pad for artists.  

He plans to launch the non-profit Great Lakes Arts Center at 29135 Ford Road, just east of Middlebelt, as soon as he gets the funding he needs for basic renovations.

The newly formed Great Lakes Arts Foundation is in the process of transforming the six-level building to become home to art classes, seminars, culinary art offerings, performances, visual arts, a large gallery exhibiting fine and contemporary art, demonstrations, poetry readings, glass blowing, cultural events and a rooftop garden with sculptures.

Wakefield envisions workshops, recording studios and a museum atmosphere with works in progress. Chefs will be on hand demonstrating their skills and selling their creations.  He envisions the center as a regional destination and a blank canvas for the arts community.

The 1974 John Glenn High School graduate moved to California shortly after graduating to pursue his lust for the arts. He got involved with studios on the West Coast where he collaborated with other artists to showcase their work.

More than 40 years later, he sees potential in bringing cultural venues to metro Detroit. The recently approved non-profit status of the organization could open the door to grants, but right now Wakefield is looking for investors and more artists who are interested in becoming involved.
The center “definitely needs some more team members to realize the vision,” he said.  He is currently leasing from the center’s next door neighbor, the Moose Lodge, for $1 annually. Part of the agreement is that he will make improvements on the property at no cost to the lodge.

Wakefield has already begun to throw fundraisers, like weekly Fish Fries in April, to help support reconstruction costs.

After the center idea was floated last year, Dold says:  “If the city and community get behind this and really support it, it has the potential to change the entire face of the downtown area in Garden City. I just hope he gets the support he needs and we can make this thing a reality. The art center, once it’s a success, is really a game changer for us.”

This piece is part of our City Dive series in which we go deep to find out what's next in the cities and towns in Metro Detroit. Read more in the series here.
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Read more articles by Diane Gale Andreassi.

Diane Gale Andreassi is a Detroit-area freelance writer who worked as a full-time community news reporter and editor.