With development on the rise, Pontiac reaches a tipping point

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After nearly seven years operating 1515 Broadway Cafe in Detroit, rents in the burgeoning downtown district were pricing Dan Martinez out. So he decided to start a new business in the "cute little downtown" he passed through on his daily drive from his Detroit home to his teaching gig at Dorsey Schools Culinary Academy: Pontiac.

In many ways, Pontiac's path has mirrored Detroit's. Like Detroit, Pontiac faced a dire financial situation, prompting a succession of three state-appointed emergency managers between 2010 to 2013. And though it has received less attention than Detroit, Pontiac is also following in its larger neighbor's footsteps in a positive way, emerging from emergency management with numerous signs of revitalization.

For example, Compuware cofounder Pete Karmanos Jr. is moving three of his companies from Birmingham to downtown Pontiac's Riker Building (another Detroit parallel, echoing Compuware's impactful move to downtown Detroit in 2003). The Flagstar Strand Theatre recently reopened following a $20 million renovation. In another Detroit connection, Slows Bar-B-Q is scheduled to open a Pontiac location next to the Strand this year. And even the long-dormant Bloomfield Park development, which straddles the Pontiac-Bloomfield Township border and fell victim to the Great Recession, is back on track.

But those major developments and big names are just the tips of the iceberg. Less recognizable but equally determined entrepreneurs like Martinez are beginning to stream into the city as well.

"Downtown looked like it was ready for a renaissance," says Martinez, who now operates the Alleycat Cafe in downtown Pontiac. "It looked like it was perfectly suited to a little growth, just like Ferndale and downtown Detroit ... so I took a chance."

Alleycat Cafe. Photo by Doug Coombe.

Affordable appeal

Pontiac planning commission chair Dayne Thomas sums up the city's renewed appeal with a single word: "Affordability." In residential neighborhoods, homes can still be had for $1,000. They're fixer-uppers, to be sure, but many of them have a rich history. And they have the added appeal of proximity to what's starting to feel like a downtown on the verge.

"No one has an appetite to live in the suburbs," Thomas says, somewhat ironically using a word that might have easily referred to Pontiac before its revitalization began. "There's frankly no dignity living in the suburbs. You live someplace where you have to drive someplace."

Dayne Thomas, Chair of Pontiac Planning Commission and GM Modern Housing resident. Photo by Doug Coombe.

Troy-based Flagstar Bank has moved to capitalize on growing interest in Pontiac in a big way. The bank contributed $1.5 million to the renovation of the Strand Theatre, which now bears Flagstar's name. But that's just a portion of the bank's overall $10 million investment in the city, half of which is devoted to a home mortgage product for Pontiac residents. The bank has also earmarked money for economic development and financial literacy initiatives in the city.

"Pontiac is in our backyard, 10 minutes from our headquarters," says Flagstar first vice president Beverly Meek. "A lot of people are investing in Detroit, and so are we. But Pontiac is an area where we thought we could make a greater impact by investing in a city where we think our investment could be leveraged and would make a greater impact."

Beverly Meek, Flagstar Bank. Photo by Doug Coombe.

Interest has piled up quickly in downtown commercial space as well. Pontiac Downtown Business Association director Glen Konopaskie says a total of 60 buildings and parking lots have sold downtown over the past five years, and property owners are now plowing just over $15 million a year into renovation work. Konopaskie expects this year's total will exceed that, as Auch Construction prepares to build its new corporate headquarters on a former General Motors property on the eastern side of downtown.

"We're constantly in renovation mode down here," Konopaskie says.

Effects of emergency management

Despite all the good news, Pontiac's financial emergency remains a very recent memory – as do the controversial actions of the city's emergency managers, who privatized emergency and other city services, dissolved Pontiac's police department and turned community policing over to the Oakland County Sheriff, and liquidated many city assets in the process of paying off $87 million in city debt.

Residents are divided as to the overall effect the emergency manager period has had on the city's recovery. Konopaskie says the city's first two emergency managers, Fred Leeb and Michael Stampfler, "did more harm than good." Konopaskie gives more credit to Stampfler's successor, Lou Schimmel, while still describing his role as a "necessary evil."

"Did the emergency manager have to do some stuff that wasn't popular? Absolutely," Konopaskie says. "We lost some really good things in this city because of emergency management. But part of what was done when the emergency manager came in was to start cleaning up the broken processes and forcing us to rebuild from scratch with something better, in my opinion."

Glen Konopaskie, director of Main Street Pontiac. Photo by Doug Coombe.

Konopaskie is still waiting out that transition – and in the meantime, struggling with extended waits for basic city services like building inspections.

Pontiac resident Sean Kammer is far less measured in his appraisal of the long-term effects of emergency management, describing it as "a detriment to the city." Kammer, who founded the nonprofit Better Pontiac, appreciates recent signs of resurgence in his city. But in the wake of a recent announcement that two Pontiac schools are at risk of state-imposed closure for low performance, he notes that Pontiac still has major problems to solve in creating economic and educational opportunities for all of its citizens.

"I don't think an emergency manager can engineer all those things from his desk," Kammer says.

Spreading revitalization

As Pontiac builds on a resurgence that's still concentrated primarily in its downtown, Kammer says another key problem is engaging the city's neighborhoods in that revitalization. He says there are "definitely different perspectives" on downtown redevelopment, depending on which Pontiac neighborhood you check in with.

Sean Kammer. Photo by Doug Coombe.

"In neighborhoods where transportation may be challenging, developments going on in downtown may not be perceived as beneficial," he says. "The same things go with those neighborhoods if there's serious economic inequalities, unstable housing situations."

Kammer suggests a wide variety of solutions to that problem, including a campaign that promotes a sense of "collective ownership" of downtown, neighborhood outreach efforts led by the businesses flowing into downtown, or partnerships between businesses and nonprofits to transform some of Pontiac's vacant schools into neighborhood community centers.

Neighborhood organizer Cole Yoakum sees it a bit differently. Yoakum moved to Detroit from Arkansas in 2011 with interest in doing neighborhood revitalization work; finding that Detroit was already "gaining traction," he chose to resettle on the western edge of Pontiac one year later. He's since started the nonprofit community development organization Micah 6. As Yoakum sees, community organizers have one job and developers have another.

Coleman Yoakum, Micah 6 and Sprout Fresh Food Store. Photo by Doug Coombe.

"The thing that scares people the most is ambiguity and not knowing what's going to happen," Yoakum says. "So while our schools are in turmoil and our property values and all this stuff is up in the air, I think that's going to be a deterrent for folks who are maybe craving a little more stability from institutions. But for young, enterprising, especially entrepreneurial people like me and like my friends and the people who are coming right now, those things don't bother us yet. We're still excited, and we're still coming."

Yoakum summons a vision of Pontiac at an exciting but tenuous moment, which Martinez echoes when he says the city is "approaching the tipping point." Martinez says his business is still struggling somewhat in what he describes as a "weak market," but as long as the rent stays low he's willing to bet on Pontiac's continued comeback.

"The infrastructure is in place," he says. "Everything's there. It's just time for a new, young population to come and see what value a small town like this holds."

Please join #OTGpontiac on Thursdays from 8 am-1 pm for our weekly Community Open Newsroom at the Alleycat Cafe, 31 N Saginaw (alley entrance off W. Lawrence) in downtown Pontiac. You can pitch us ideas, tell us your Pontiac story, give news tips or just hang out with our writers and editors.
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Read more articles by Patrick Dunn.

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