With a waterfront, an emerging downtown and breweries, St. Clair Shores pursues destination status

Tony Bellestri has lived in St. Clair Shores since 1963, and these days he says more people than ever before are seeing his beloved hometown the same way he does.


"All the people I coached in football are coming back and getting married," says Bellestri, a business owner, zoning board member, Tax Increment Finance Authority board member, and former high school football coach. "Everybody's moving back to St. Clair Shores."


Bellestri says he's long treasured his neighbors and the close access to water that St. Clair Shores provides, but some recent developments have helped to make his city better than ever. He cites the renovation of St. Clair Shores' public schools, thanks to a 2007 bond issue, and the renovation of popular waterfront restaurants like Brownie's on the Lake as a few of the changes that have helped to make the city more attractive to newcomers in recent years.


"I've seen houses go in one weekend. They're gone," Bellestri says. "So that's exciting. ... We need new blood, new people, new kids coming."


And if numerous players in St. Clair Shores have their way, that's just the beginning. Government officials, long-established business owners, and residents making a first stab at entrepreneurship are all currently in the midst of a variety of projects aimed at recasting their town as a regional destination.


Rethinking the waterfront


The most concerted of those efforts is focused on what is arguably St. Clair Shores' single greatest asset: the Nautical Mile, the stretch of Jefferson Avenue between Nine Mile and Ten Mile roads. Directly to the east of the Nautical Mile are numerous waterfront restaurants and marinas, and beyond that is Lake St. Clair. But even city officials admit that the strip is far from the major attraction that it could be.


"Some people that aren't familiar with the area aren't quite sure where they should go in terms of finding the restaurants that are out by the water," says St. Clair Shores community development director Chris Rayes. "It can be almost a mile or three-quarters of a mile between Jefferson and the water in some areas."


Assistant city manager Bill Gambill takes that one step further.


"If you're on Jefferson you can't really see the water, even though it's the Nautical Mile," he says.


So earlier this year the city issued a request for qualifications for an updated master plan for the Nautical Mile. Although there's a lot of private property on the Mile, Gambill says the city is interested in improving public spaces on the strip. He rattles off a list of projects that may come into play on the Mile as a result of the new plan, including floating barges, water taxis, and improved parkland at Blossom Heath Park on the northern end of the Mile and a piece of county property on its southern end at Nine Mile and Jefferson. Rayes also floats the possibility of a bike-share system, improved signage, and new footpaths.


"If you can't get into one restaurant you've got to drive all the way back to Jefferson and loop around to get to the next one," Rayes says. "So we're trying to create some bicycle and pedestrian access between them."


A bond issue to implement the resulting plan could go before voters as soon as next year. The last time such a comprehensive project was attempted on the Mile was in 1997, when its streetscape was redesigned. Rayes says that initiative was aimed more at bringing new private investment to the Mile, which did occur. But the new plan aims higher.


"It's more about controlling our destiny rather than having a developer kind of take the whole thing," Gambill says. "We can work on certain aspects of it and then maybe do something bigger with a developer later on. But at least we're starting the momentum."


Brewery proliferation


In just the past two years, three different groups of entrepreneurs have set about turning St. Clair Shores into a different kind of destination that both includes and stretches beyond the Nautical Mile. The city has seen a sudden explosion of breweries, with Baffin Brewing opening in 2015 at the northern end of the Nautical Mile, Jamex Brewing Company opening last month south of downtown, and Shipwreck Brewing Company tentatively set to open this month on the Nautical Mile.


Baffin co-owner and head brewer Evan Feringa says he and his partners chose to locate in St. Clair Shores for its proximity to the water and because it was cofounder Joe VanderMarliere's hometown. They haven't regretted the decision a bit.


"The second we opened, it was wild," Feringa says. "It was just crazy, nonstop, 24/7, to the point that we ran out of beer within the first 10 days of the soft opening."


Baffin's opening came just as Jamex co-owner Jeff Kaye was seeking a St. Clair Shores site for his own brewery. Kaye says Baffin seemed "kind of like a kink" in his plans at first, but he met with Feringa and asked what the Baffin partners would think about having a second brewery in town. Kaye says Feringa was nothing but encouraging.


"He felt that the more breweries we have in St. Clair Shores, the more craft beer enthusiasts from the metro area and the rest of Michigan we'll draw," Kaye says.


Since Jamex opened, Feringa's theory seems to have been confirmed.


"We've never seen bigger numbers in our bar since [Jamex] opened," Feringa says. "I'm pretty sure what it's doing is it's just pulling more people from ... all around, because they're like, 'Oh, hey! Two breweries. Let's go brewery hopping.'"


He anticipates that things will get "even crazier" when Bellestri opens Shipwreck. For his part, Bellestri is excited to join what he describes as a "family" of St. Clair Shores breweries.


"Real beer drinkers, they travel," he says. "In other cities they have four, five, six, eight breweries in a city. So this is welcome for the other breweries. ... It's one for all and all for everybody."


Seeds of a destination downtown


Although St. Clair Shores' downtown area near Nine Mile and Mack doesn't necessarily house any destination businesses as of now, some of the city's business leaders are starting to reenvision it as a potential hub as well.


LaHood Realty owner Al LaHood, who owns numerous properties in that area and across St. Clair Shores, recently purchased the long-vacant Shores Theatre just south of Nine Mile on Mack. He says there will be a "big challenge" in bringing the theater up to code, but he's currently in talks with an operator who's interested in bringing it back to life as a movie theater.


LaHood notes that there is a market for a theater in the area, given that the closest first-run movie theater is eight miles away.


"You have the demographics, you have the income level, you have the people that are necessary to support it," he says. "It's just a matter of trying to put this thing together."


He suggests that a theater would also go a long way towards making St. Clair Shores a destination beyond the Nautical Mile.


"It just adds one more aspect to it," LaHood says. "It attracts people from more than that one- or two-mile radius that your typical shopping area attracts."


Meanwhile, one of downtown St. Clair Shores' oldest businesses has reinvested in its operation in a big way while also establishing a new event that draws visitors from beyond that limited radius LaHood describes. Roy O'Brien Ford is currently wrapping up a major renovation of its facility that will see the dealership's 70-year-old original building demolished and replaced with a new showroom, expanded service area, and parking lot.


The dealership also recently hosted its second annual Rockin' the Shores beer and music festival. Dealership general manager and president Roy O'Brien says the event was an effort to keep St. Clair Shores "fun, exciting, and a place to go." He says that fits with a broader trend he's seeing in the city, tied to the rejuvenation Detroit has seen over the past decade.


"It's nice to see that the old adage, 'When the last person leaves Detroit, please turn off the switch,' I think that mindset's long gone," O'Brien says. "And we're seeing that in a microcosm here in St. Clair Shores. It's the same thing. We're seeing growth. We're seeing people moving in. It's a community that people want to be in."

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