Pontiac: What Was, What Is, What's Next...

Imagine if Oakland County had built its county offices in or even near downtown Pontiac. Imagine the restaurants, services, and retail that would have developed to support such a campus. Imagine the number of workers who could walk to work from the city's historic neighborhoods. Imagine if the city had been designed to draw people to the banks of the Clinton River rather than being built over it and hiding it from views and visitors. Imagine if Woodward Avenue had brought visitors directly into downtown rather than turning into a six-lane, one-way road that steers visitors around downtown instead of into it.

"Our forefathers did some very poor planning. We used to have a river running right through the downtown,and they've covered it up! It was probably, and again I've been here for 33 years, the single biggest error made by the forefathers. I'd like to shoot 'em for that," says Lee Todd, a real estate broker and owner of Todd Enterprises, a Pontiac-based commercial and residential property management company covering Oakland and Macomb counties.

"The second was creating this vast five, six lane loop that takes people around downtown. I'm not sure which is worse the loop or the river."

At this point, in hindsight, it's all woulda, coulda, shoulda, water under the bridge, but to put it simply: Pontiac would have been a totally different city if not for big decisions made at a time when development was about cheap land rather than establishing downtowns, and before regionalism and business diversity became necessary philosophies of economic development.

Pontiac could have been a contender. A Royal Oak, a Birmingham, or a Ferndale rather than struggling to pay the bills, cutting police as crime goes up, watching gorgeous neighborhoods decay, residents move away and, most recently, falling under the control of a state-appointed financial emergency manager.

The city named after a brave Ottawa chief has all the makings of great downtowns along the east or west coasts: a walkable historic center with beautiful architecture, a housing stock matching or exceeding the appeal of stately, well-built homes in Royal Oak, Birmingham, Ann Arbor, and the Grosse Pointes. Pontiac has a pride brewing in residents who have hung on, a nightlife and music scene known across metro Detroit and gathering spots for public events right in the downtown center.

What Pontiac doesn't have is much money or a history of running a city or a school district properly. It hasn't had an interest in cooperating with its neighbors or the county, preferring to take care of its own house, one pretty much in a shambles. It doesn't have a diversified business base or much of a way to make the investments that could take Pontiac from washed up to awash in prosperity.

"It is devastating to see this happen to the city, and devastating that the same kinds of decisions are still being made," says Mayor Leon Jukowski, who was elected in January 2010 and wants to to see his hometown team with Oakland County and neighboring communities, if not the state, in economic development efforts. One other thing working against Pontiac is having the second-highest tax rate in Oakland County.

A new direction

Imagine now bringing businesses downtown with an innovative, and possibly risky, program. Imagine opening some of the city's historic homes and gardens for visitors to see. Imagine unearthing the Clinton River, letting it flow downtown and move in the crowds. Imagine putting the city's art galleries and other gems on display during festivals and drawing crowds that might come back again some time. Imagine a quick and reliable system of mass transit connecting Pontiac to Detroit and the communities in between.

None of these what-ifs have reached the woulda, coulda, shoulda, too-late-to-turn-back-now stage. They're all here and now, some more immediate than others. And what better time than the city's 150th birthday this year to bring them to life.

Happy Birthday, Dear Pontiac, there are still plenty of candles to light in years to come if the efforts underway are as sweet as organizers hope - and if the city can get out of its financial dark hole and see the light.

The city may already be changing course with the Rise of the Phoenix, a collaboration of businesses and business assistance groups that formed in 2010. Rise of the Phoenix offers free rent and free parking for a year to businesses that sign downtown space leases for at least two years. Rise of the Phoenix, similar to approaches contributing to economic comebacks in cities such as Pittsburgh and Youngstown, Ohio, also provides counseling and advice and to those businesses to help ensure success. The enticements are filling up vacant holes in storefronts.

The situation in downtown Pontiac was that coffee shops and food businesses wouldn't come until more retail and offices moved in, and retailers and offices wouldn't come because there was no place to get a cup of coffee.

"It was the whole chicken or the egg theory," Todd says. "Nobody would come in first.. so that is what gave rise to the Rise of the Phoenix."

Rise of the Phoenix resulted in 52 new businesses moving into downtown -- a mix of office, retail and service. Five to six more establishments are opening within two weeks, says Todd, an organizer of the Pontiac business owners who formed Rise of the Phoenix in 2009.

"Daily, it is increasing traffic for sure. They'd like more general public visitors, but there is definitely more going on now," says Dawnaree Demrose, executive director of the Pontiac Regional Chamber of Commerce.

While Rise of the Phoenix targets business attraction and retention, projects such as the Historic Home and Garden Tour will show off the beauty of the city's residential neighborhoods. The Pontiac Garden Club's annual event on July 16 will include never-before-seen homes on its 11-home and garden tour: "true treasures," it says, in a two-mile radius in the heart of the city's historical district.

A week later a gallery tour along the city's main drag, Saginaw Street, will take visitors along the historic storefronts to see art and photographs of the city then and now and for ice cream and more at opening day of a Vernors store in the downtown district.

"Whenever people come in they can see what Pontiac has to offer," Demrose says.

Overcoming the past

Even with the events and new businesses, which Mayor Jukowski sees as bright spots, he struggles to remain optimistic. Jukowski is trying to reverse a long history of financial mismanagement at City Hall and the refusal of Emergency Financial Manager Michael Stamphler to work with him and neighboring communities on bigger picture projects such as mass transit - or even smaller ones for that matter.

Jukowski says the city's past history of cutting off the county, refusing its help and generally being uncooperative, even for services such as free web hosting and other services, has put Pontiac in the bind it's in. Demrose also says the county has long offered help to Pontiac, with little success.

"It is what it is with the whole financial crisis," Demrose says. "Even the county executive said he would lend his resources and the governor wouldn't let any city go bankrupt…We will keep doing what we can to show people what's great about Pontiac."

Bigger picture plans such as mass transit, countywide downtown Main Street efforts, and other regional programs are on hold, he says, as the emergency financial manager focuses on the books and little else. The mayor and city council have no authority as long as the emergency financial manager is seated.

"These are things that need to be talked about. They no doubt could change the situation we're in," Jukowski says.

One decision, such as where to build Oakland County's newest county court and government offices, could have mitigated Pontiac's current conundrum. Not relying on the auto industry would have been a game-changer for certain, Jukowski says. The county offices would have brought thousands of employees and visitors, many of them international. It would have brought economic and cultural life to a hobbled downtown. Having other taxpaying entities would have taught the city how to live within its means and left it without shuttered auto facilities.

However, Jukowski says, the county's decision wasn't out of malice or neglect, just a different way of thinking at a different time. And when times were good, as they were with the auto companies in their prime, few thought it would go away.

"The short answer is, 'You bet!' If we could pick up the county government offices and move them, if you could have other businesses coming to downtown all these years, we might not be having this conversation," says Jukowski. "Unfortunately, the urban planning philosophy at that time was to go out to build. If we could un-build the Pontiac mall, that would be great too. Would I prefer that Great Lakes Crossing be closer? You bet."

Dreaming of what might have been doesn't change what is now. However, dreaming of what might be could make a significant impact on Pontiac's future. Is Oakland County's lack of commitment to the Woodward Avenue light rail project another example of a "different way of thinking" that'll yield missed opportunities?

If he could affect the future, Todd would encourage the county to connect to the Woodward light rail that currently will end in Detroit at the Oakland County line. There already is a successful rail line used by Amtrak, and a new transportation station on the Loop.

"We would love to see the light rail continued," Todd says. "There's still a certain segment that needs transportation. Having that rail line opens up all the communities up and down the line."

A better future

To Todd and others, the next big things are adding quality of life businesses to downtown: grocers, florists, dry cleaners and more residential. There currently are about 60 lofts, about half of them in a renovated hotel, but more downtown living and those quality of life desirables may be on the way.

"A year ago if you had walked down Saginaw Street, you would not have seen a single clothing store. Today you'll see 13," he says. "Vernors and a couple of others are coming in and we have a huge project pending on the north end of downtown."

The Rise of the Phoenix was intended to be a catalyst that it was OK to come down, that we're moving forward. It's serving its purpose and now we're getting developers coming in and saying we want to see what you have. Instead of me chasing them down, they're coming to me."

Besides Rise of the Phoenix, a facade improvement program has begun and two reserve police officers have been assigned to a downtown foot beat. And every Friday, the Love'N the Loop event has bands playing in the park, artists bringing out their work, car clubs meeting up, and restaurants serving at sidewalk cafes.

It's all adding up to a busier downtown and signs to developers that Pontiac is worth a look, Todd says. Business owners can also count on Pontiac to keep rents low, typically half that in other communities, for years to come, he adds.

Todd also wants more businesses and events attracting middle-aged and older visitors to downtown parks, and he and Jukowski see reopening the Strand Theatre as a must. If they could change the past, they would unearth the Clinton River.

"It's always been discussed, and it would be very expensive obviously," Todd says. "I don't know that there's any pots of gold out there. There's hopes and dreams and prayers and wants. In order to have a real discussion there has to be some money."

Todd still has a lot of convincing to do to show that Pontiac is a place of promise.

"My dad is my biggest critic. His company was in Pontiac. He says, 'Why are you wasting your time down there? There's nothing there.' " Todd laughs. "I said, 'Dad, what are you talking about? I'm taking you to lunch. I'll show you what's there.' "

Maybe more of us should try that.

Kim North Shine is Metromode's Development News director. She is also a freelance writer.

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