Milford taps potential as western Oakland County's downtown

Two years ago, James and Jodie Courtney embarked on a nine-month search for a metro Detroit community where they could settle down for the long run to raise their kids, then 1 and 4. James says the couple's search was "pretty particular and analytical," but their conclusion – "hands down" – was Milford.


"It's a very special place," says James, who had previously lived five years in Northville. "There's not many places like this around, where it has that small-town feel, and yet you're still so close to some of these major cities. It doesn't feel overpopulated. It doesn't feel like there's a strip mall on every single corner. And yet there's everything you could ever want here."Flatiron Building


Ann Barnette, executive director of the Milford Downtown Development Authority (DDA), says she's been hearing those kinds of sentiments more and more often these days. Whether it's the influx of visitors to Milford's burgeoning downtown or those taking an interest in making their home in the community, Barnette says the village is experiencing a "growth spurt."


"I think other people are noticing what we've always felt, growing up and living here," Barnette says.


New construction


Ask about signs of redevelopment in Milford, and Barnette (and most other Milford residents who keep tabs on their village's growth) all point to one current key sign: the ongoing 100-unit Milford Lofts development at Main and Huron, formerly the site of Iverson's Lumber. That single project is much bigger news in Milford than it might be in other municipalities. Barnette estimates that it's the first multifamily development in the village in 60 years.


DevMar Development principal Mark DeMaria, who is leading the Milford Lofts project, says he saw Milford as a perfect opportunity to tap into the post-recession trend towards urban renewal.


"There was a complete dearth of this product there," DeMaria says. "If you want to live in Milford, unfortunately, you have to buy an older home and redo it. The trend is, a lot of empty-nesters don't want that. They want to get out of their house and have a more convenient lifestyle and have it be walkable into town."


While the Milford Lofts is perhaps the biggest current game-changer for Milford's revitalization, it isn't the only one. Earlier this year the DDA received a loan from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to clean up a long-vacant gas station at Commerce and Main, where a mixed-use development is now proposed. Another long-vacant property at Liberty and Main is also set for a mixed-use development.


The 2015 opening of the LaFontaine Family Amphitheater has also been a boon to the village. Barnette says the amphitheater's free summer concerts draw crowds of about 2,000 people per week – and that's in a village of 6,000.


"It's kind of testimony that, out here in western Oakland County, Milford's one of the only traditional downtowns with seven or eight townships around us," Barnette says. "We're a gathering place for western Oakland and eastern Livingston County."


Commercial changes


There's more to Milford's revitalization than just new construction. Business owners are also successfully making innovative use of previously overlooked spaces. Milford's "south side" area, for example, lies just over the Huron River from the village's concentrated downtown. But it had been mostly inactive until the past five years or so. Ryan Wiltse says he and his business partners moved into a building that was "basically vacant" when they opened River's Edge Brewing on the south side in 2014.


"I remember people asking, 'Where are you putting your brewery?' and we'd tell them, and they were like, 'There's a building there?' or, 'Where's that?'" Wiltse says. "It was something that for a long time dropped out of people's consciousness."


Regardless, Wiltse says he and his partners have been "floored" by the positive response to their business – and now they've got company on the south side. The brewery now shares space with the 90 Degrees North yoga studio and the Suzanne Haskew Arts Center.


"Something that was empty is now this lively, kind of artistic building that's a lot of fun," Wiltse says.


Just a block away from those establishments, a much older Milford business has also found new life on the south side. Interior design store Your Nesting Place has been in Milford for 23 years, and Chris Meredith has owned it for 15. But in 2014 Meredith decided to move the store from its prime Main Street location to the south side. Since then, her business has increased by about 30 percent.


"It's hard to put your finger on why," Meredith says. "Is it parking? Is it more visibility? Is it because it's standalone? I don't know, but our business has taken off."


James Courtney outside Proving Grounds coffee shopBusiness is also booming in downtown Milford proper. Restaurants like Palate and Smoke Street have taken off in recent years – as has downtown's latest addition, The Proving Grounds Coffee and Ice Cream, which opened just six weeks ago. After settling on Milford as their ideal place to live, James and Jodie Courtney also realized it was the ideal place to open their longtime dream business: a coffeehouse. The name honors the nearby GM Proving Grounds in Milford Township.


"Business has been better than expected, and the community has been very warm and kind to us," James Courtney says.


Room to grow


So what's next for downtown Milford? Meredith says there's still room for the village's business community to grow.


"We've got a few vacant spaces that are viable spaces," she says. "We just need the right person to want to move in."


But DeMaria says he doesn't expect the village to "explode" along the lines of wildly popular metro-area downtowns like Royal Oak or Ferndale.


"It's just going to be more desirable, and land values are going to continue to rise, because especially in Michigan there is such a lack of vibrant little suburban-urban downtowns," he says. "You can probably count them on one hand in southeast Michigan. So I think it's just going to continue to improve with the venues and the restaurants that are there."


Wiltse says he welcomes that. He's lived in Milford for five years and regularly spent time in the village for 12 years before that while visiting his future wife.


"Back when I started coming here, I don't remember just seeing people around having fun and walking around downtown," Wiltse says. "It seems like a more vibrant community, a more outgoing and social community than I first remember."

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Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere