Warren retools to attract residents, dreams of a downtown revival

Stable and changing. That’s how Warren Mayor Jim Fouts, who’s serving his 11th year as mayor following 26 years on the city council, describes Michigan’s third-largest city.


It’s a diverse place. The north side of the city has a large population of seniors and long-time residents, many who come from Polish, Italian and German descent, while the southern portion has seen more African American residents moving in from Detroit, as well as people with Middle Eastern and Asian backgrounds.


And as automakers and other businesses make new investments in the city, with billions of dollars set to bring thousands of jobs to Warren, city leaders want to ensure they’re also attracting residents to Michigan’s third-largest city.


Warren has become a renewed hotspot of industrial activity largely thanks to Big Three automakers General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, who are retooling and/or expanding their existing facilities in the city. In 2016, even before the latest $1 billion investment announcement from Chrysler, Warren surpassed Detroit and Auburn Hills for the highest assessed industrial property value in Metro Detroit at more than $578 million, according to Bridge Magazine.


“Warren is the center of the action,” boasts Fouts, also pointing to smaller industrial and commercial business expansions along with civic developments in the works.

Warren Community Center vPhoto by David Lewinski.


Fouts says he hopes the jobs and developments help convince more people to move to the city, which had a population of about 135,000 in 2016, down from its peak of nearly 180,000 in 1970. But the city has recently begun gaining population, and Fouts wants to see that trend continue.


The city is working on an “aggressive campaign” to encourage people to move to Warren through television and internet advertisements. “We’d like to encourage younger families to move into Warren,” he says.


Rebuilding a downtown for workers and residents


Bret Kuhnhenn, co-owner of Kuhnhenn Brewing at Mound and Chicago roads in Warren, wishes Warren had more of a downtown area like Royal Oak. He’d like to see “somewhere where people can park and walk to different places.” He’d welcome more breweries, too.


“We have a lot of population in Warren; there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have more breweries,” he says.


Kuhnhenn is not alone in this wish.


In January, Fouts says the city would soon begin taking bids from developers for a proposed $125 million downtown development project that he hopes will include a hotel, nightclub, lofts, upscale grocer, specialty shops, and eateries.


The project would bring life to a strip of Van Dyke Avenue between city hall and the GM Warren Tech Center that’s currently home to a lot of vacant lots. Similar plans have been in the works since at least the early 2000s to no avail.


Fouts says he’s optimistic this time around since the economy is doing better. He says a planning consultant was set to give a presentation on the project in late January and at least half a dozen developers are interested in the project.


“While that didn’t progress as rapidly I think as the city officials would have hoped, I think it’s still viable for that use, and I think it’s still intended for that use,” says Grace Shore, CEO of the Macomb County Chamber of Commerce.

Grace Shore. Photo by David Lewinski.


Fouts hopes to partner with GM on the downtown development, which he wants to include a pedestrian bridge from the Tech Center. The Detroit automaker is investing $1 billion to renovate and expand its Tech Center. In 2015 GM said it would add 2,600 jobs over five years as part of the investment.


In January, Fiat Chrysler announced it would invest $1 billion in its Warren Truck Assembly Plant as it moves production of Ram Heavy Duty trucks there from Mexico. The news comes a year after the automaker said it would invest a combined $1 billion in the Warren factory and a plant in Toledo for Jeep production. Both projects should be complete by 2020.


The Warren plant, which employs roughly 6,300 people, is shifting some of its workers to Sterling Heights but should also get 2,500 jobs as a result of the latest investment announcement, according to The New York Times. The new Jeep manufacturing is expected to add 2,000 jobs between Warren and Toledo.


The move should encourage more small businesses to open and give a push for new development on the city’s south end, Fouts says, noting that the area has a lot of older homes and could use some major investments such as a veterans’ housing development.


“With the new jobs, hopefully, these people will decide to move to Warren and move into those neighborhoods and that area,” Fouts says.


Southwest Warren resident Dave Gifford said he’s glad to see the city investing in the area.

David Gifford. Photo by David Lewinski.

Gifford, who moved to Warren with his wife in 2014 from Rochester, said he enjoys that his neighborhood is affordable, diverse and is within walking distance to a grocery store, eateries, a library, and schools.


A public transit advocate, he’d like to see more robust bus service and bike lanes throughout the city as well as a trail connecting the community center and civic center. The area between the two centers encompasses Warren’s old village, much of which was razed to make way for the Davison freeway, which never materialized, and became modern-day Mound Road. Business growth in the district includes Kuhnhenn Brewing and several other small businesses, including the Village Vinyl record shop that opened last spring.

“They’re actively trying to find ways to reinvent the south side of Warren and bring it back,” Gifford says. "While Oakland has done a good job at retaining many of its original downtowns, Macomb did not. Many of them were lost to road widening and shopping centers like Warren, Centerline, Fraser, Eastpointe & Roseville."


“There’s a lot of life in that area … it could be developed more,” Gifford says.


Civic investment & public safety

While the city cut down on overtime and left vacant positions unfilled during the recession, it also has generated revenue through industrial property taxes, millages, drug forfeiture money and other sources. This has allowed new investment in public infrastructure and amenities.


The south side also will be home to a new civic center at 9 Mile Road and Van Dyke, which should be complete by spring 2019. The project includes a new mini-city hall, police station, revamped library, special needs accessible playground and eventually a new fire station. Last summer the city reopened the renovated Dorothy Busch Branch Library on Ryan Road north of 9 Mile.


The city is installing new LED street lights and repaving residential streets that haven’t been repaved in decades. It’s been able to fund improvements while maintaining a budget surplus thanks to a variety of factors:


In addition to more business investment, Fouts’ major goals for the city include fighting blight, crime, drugs, and elder abuse. Warren has been the epicenter of a lot of heroin overdoses, Fouts says, so the police department equipped its officers with emergency overdose medication to save lives.


The department also started a program that offers a $500 reward for tips on drug dealers and has a “hope not handcuffs” policy that welcomes addicts to come to authorities for help getting counseling and medical assistance.


The city tackles property maintenance problems by conducting blight sweeps from April through October where staff go door-to-door issuing warning tickets as a way to clean up older sections of the city.


“A blightless, crime-free neighborhood would be ideal,” he says. “It’s not a perfect goal, but it’s a goal that I’d like to see happen.”

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.