Metro Detroit's downtowns weather pandemic as second wave poses new challenges

Donna Bourgoin, owner of downtown Rochester's 4th Street Boutique, remembers exactly how she was feeling about her business back in March when the pandemic began sweeping across Southeast Michigan. The outbreak started right before spring break, normally an incredibly busy time for her shop.

 

"I had just gotten back from L.A. where I did a big buying trip, and usually I drain my bank account at that point," she says. "Obviously spring break didn't happen. I was so panicked because I had a lot of merchandise and basically no money and then all of a sudden everything shut down."

 

Faced with the prospect of not being able to bring in any retail income for the foreseeable future, Burgoin got to work finding ways to keep her business afloat. When she got news of the shutdown, the entrepreneur called her daughter in Chicago who helped her set up a 4th Street Boutique website that was up the very next day. Because Burgoin didn't have any photographs at that point, she ended up using stock images for the site.

Owner Donna Bourgoin, 4th Street Boutique. Photo by David Lewinski.

 

Once the website was up and running, she pivoted to an online business model, supporting it with social media promotion. She also began to reassess the type of merchandise she was stocking. Ordinarily 4th Street Boutique carries lots of dresses for weddings and other big events. But after the pandemic started, Burgoin began ordering more casual clothing, apparel that would be comfortable for people spending a lot of time at home.

 

In order to keep from worrying about her daughter, who works in a COVID-19 hospital unit, Burgoin threw herself into her work. Her home sunroom quickly became a makeshift warehouse. The boutique owner also started making special gift packages for occasions like birthdays and Mother's Day. And, when it came time to deliver items, she made herself available to drop off local packages personally.

 

Despite the shutdown, the early days of the pandemic were as busy as ever for Burgoin, and customers supported her. Her boutique finally reopened on June 3, with a limit of 10 customers in a store at a time. And much to her relief, her foot traffic has been surprisingly good, something she attributes to a combination of social media support and the fact that many shoppers just aren't as eager to visit big chain stores as they used to be.

 

"It's not like people were banging on the door, but I've had a consistent business," Burgoin says. "I've been in business for six years and my numbers daily are triple what they've ever been. It's

still happening right now!"

 

Holding tight

 

As executive director of Rochester's Downtown Development Authority, Kristi Trevarrow has been keeping an eye on what's been happening with local businesses like Burgoin's boutique. All things considered, she thinks Rochester's downtown commercial district is handling the pandemic pretty well.

Rochester. Photo by David Lewinski.

 

"It feels normal, at least as normal as anything can be. right now," says Trevarrow. "Our businesses are doing well, we only lost a couple right when we were coming out of the shutdown."

 

Detroit Deli is one of the businesses that sadly didn't make it. Located on the south side of Rochester, it opened its doors in 2016 and was run by the Stamevski family which has been in the restaurant business since the late 1970s. According to Trevarrow, the deli had been struggling before the pandemic and its owners just decided not to reopen after this year's shutdown.

 

Village Shoe Inn, a shop that sells footwear, clothing, and accessories, is the other Rochester business that closed down. The business had been lagging for the last year or so, and its owners finally made the call to shutter last month. Village Shoe Inn's other locations in Farmington and Eastpointe continue to remain open.

 

On a more upbeat note, Red Knapps Dairy Bar, an iconic diner and ice cream parlor that's been a fixture of downtown Rochester for 70 years, recently avoided closing thanks to the intervention of a concerned community member. When word got out that the Knapp family was considering calling it quits at their Rochester location, Matt Kirschner, who worked as a chef next door at the Rochester Chop House, decided to step in and take over the business,

 

"It's pretty amazing," says Trevarrow. "He actually took a leap and purchased the business as Red Knapp's Dairy Bar. He’s still doing exactly what they did and he’s starting to add some fresh new twists on some of their classics."

Red Knapp's Dairy Bar. Rochester. Photo by David Lewinski.

 

Several new businesses are also in the process of joining Rochester's downtown community.

 

Like the diner, the Paint Creek Tavern, a bar, and restaurant located at 613 N. Main St., is another memorable Rochester institution. It's been operated by several owners over the years and was recently added to the well known Kruse and Muer family of restaurants. The new owners spent the early part of the pandemic renovating the tavern and finally opened in July.

 

Other new businesses that have opened include Bakehouse 46, a bakery with another location in Birmingham; Tide Cleaners, a dry cleaning operation; KJK Photography & Lindsey Garland Photography; and Saint 1881, a coffee bar.

 

To do its part to help local businesses, the Rochester DDA launched its own brand, Love Local Rochester. The effort had its start in March with a Facebook group aimed at creating an online community to support local retailers. Since then, it's branched out into highlighting events like "Rainbows over Rochester," which involved decorating the downtown with colorful rainbows and selling Love Local Rochester face masks to raise money to promote local businesses.

 

It also put together a Downtown Collaboration Studio space at 431 Main Street, which holds merchant training, pop-up events, and distributes reopening toolkits (featuring items like masks, hand sanitizer, and touch-free electronic thermometers) to area businesses as they reopened after the shutdown.

 

Right now, Rochester shops are looking expectantly to the winter holiday season, and The Big, Bright Light Show, an annual event that runs from Nov. 25 to Jan. 5 and involves covering downtown’s main street buildings in holiday lights. The event, which attracts around a million people each year, usually accounts for between 30 to 40 percent of downtown Rochester businesses’ yearly income.

 

But this year is different than most, and Trevarrow admits there's still a lot of uncertainty about how the next few months will unfold for local entrepreneurs.

 

"Everyone is feeling like they're solid and they're looking forward to the holidays to see what happens," she says. "Obviously, all of us, we don't know what the future holds."

 

Banding together

 
Rochester's commercial district isn't alone in how it seems to be taking the pandemic in stride. Just ask John Bry, principal planner for Oakland County Main Street, an economic development program for the county's downtowns. For him, the general narrative for Oakland County downtowns over the last few months seems to be one of perseverance.

 

"Overall the districts have reported that they have fared fairly well, losing just a couple businesses. The businesses they did lose were sort of borderline pre-pandemic. The pandemic sort of went ahead and took them out."

 

This doesn't mean there has been any impact, though. Some communities had to deal with the challenge of having to adjust to the pandemic while they were already conducting big infrastructure projects.

 

Downtown Oxford has had to deal with M-24 being rebuilt, which left a lot of its downtown stripped down to the dirt. That project is now nearing its final phase and should finish up by December. And downtown Franklin is installing new lights and sidewalks. Birmingham has had to weather the reconstruction of Maple Rd. And Huron Street/Eastbound M-59 in Pontiac had to be closed for several weeks to repair water drainage basins along the sides of the road.

 

Pontiac, and similar downtowns like Royal Oak, have also taken a hit due to the closure of performance venues which tend to attract a lot of foot traffic to shops and restaurants.

Rochester. Photo by David Lewinski.

 

Thankfully, efforts to provide relief for shops and restaurants in communities like these have come to the rescue. The Pontiac Funders Collaborative pooled together $200,000 in grants to help small for-profit businesses in the county seat's downtown. And in May, a $20,000 grant from Flagstar Bank made possible the formation of a Pontiac Restaurant Brigade — modeled after a similar Hurricane Katrina-era effort in New Orleans — that funded local restaurants to provide free meals to three local hospitals during a particularly difficult time in the COVID-19 outbreak.

 

In a similar spirit, Royal Oaks DDA distributed more than $1 million to 92 small businesses back in May. According to Bry, Ferndale, and Farmington's downtown development agencies offered free legal counsel and accounting help, and other downtown districts made mini-grants available.

 

For its part, Main Street Oakland county sponsored a crowdfunding campaign that ended up bringing in over $300,000 in assistance that it's still in the process of distributing to small businesses across the county.

 

Despite these efforts, Bry is very aware that the pandemic is ongoing and nothing about it is set in stone.

 

"That's kind of a snapshot view of how things stand right now," he says. "But we're very cautious,. very anxious and trying to stay at least one step ahead to help the communities that continue to adapt as the temperatures change."

 

Bracing for winter

 

For businesses in Mount Clemens downtown in neighboring Macomb County, the story is much the same.

 

"We haven't lost any retail, any restaurants, everyone has been able to hang on by getting creative with what they're doing, which is really a challenge because day-to-day it changes so much," says Michelle Weiss, Marketing Director for Mount Clemens DDA.

 

Weiss remembers the early days of the pandemic as a pretty scary time. As businesses were shutting down, she counseled them to use the free time as an opportunity to research new business approaches. She also created a special business-only Facebook page as a centralized online location to share information about resources and safety protocols being shared by the city, county, state, and federal governments.

 

The DDA also worked with businesses to create outdoor parklets in parking lots for businesses once the shutdown ended. And the agency’s grant writer on staff ended up getting a raise because businesses were literally calling her at midnight during some of the more chaotic days of the pandemic.

 

Max & Ollies Vintage Boutique is one of the local businesses that stand out most to Weiss. COVID-19 posed a real challenge for shoppers since its vintage offerings don't come with any factory packaging. To get around this hurdle, owner Diane Kubik arranges many of the products onto themed tables, so they're easier to view, and steam cleans and quarantines for two days any items that are touched by customers.

 

Like downtown Rochester, Mount Clemens also has a bunch of new businesses that are opening or have just opened downtown, including Geez Louise Boutique, The Cake Experience bakery, Cellar 104 winery, Black Cat Coffee Shop, Deep Cuts barbershop, Discovery Center children's museum, and Du-All Drafting and Art Supply.

 

Right now, Weiss is looking into different options to prepare for winter. One possibility she's discussing with local restaurants is ordering special outdoor igloo structures which can be heated when it's cold outside. The type she's looking into can contain multiple tables.

 

The marketing director is also encouraging her businesses to start getting ready for the holidays as soon as possible, as she's convinced the big chain stores will be doing everything they can to push online shopping this year.

 

"This might be the first time ever that it's going to be a heyday for small businesses because people can feel comfortable coming in [without the crowds]," she says. "We're going to make it a great experience for people who want to come out and shop with us!"

 

Over the last few days, the situation has changed once again, with Gov. Whitmer issuing a new order through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services that temporarily halts indoor dining at restaurants and bars and restricts the operation of certain other industries. For the time being, though, retail outlets, gyms, and personal service establishments like barbers and hair salons remain open.

Mt. Clemens. Photo by David Lewinski.

 
This new development is less than ideal for local businesses, Bry is quick to point out that it's not coming as a complete surprise. And he's hopeful that the time and investment companies and downtown associations have spent on physical and technological remedies to the challenges of COVID-19 will pay off.
 

"It's definitely a blow and setback, but from what we are seeing among the downtown areas in Oakland County most of the businesses have been preparing and adapting," he says. "Of course, we will do anything we can do to assist the downtown management organizations in the county to assist their businesses."

 

Read more articles by David Sands.

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