Water trails open up development in Metro Detroit’s waterfront communities

As one of the Great Lakes states, Michigan is the ideal place for water sports, with spectacular views of trees, birds, plants and other wildlife. Activities such as kayaking, canoeing, and paddle boarding are becoming more popular, thanks to the easy access to waterways such as the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair, and the Clinton River. In an article from The Detroit News, the U.S. Coast Guard estimated that about 650,000 paddlesport vessels make up Michigan’s waters and that the number is expected to increase by seven percent each year.


In response to the growing popularity of watersports, waterfront communities are beginning to create initiatives that encourage residents to use the water trails. Also, the water is an attraction for new businesses to bring in development in these communities.


Metromode digs into how three of those communities are leveraging their water trails for economic development.


Auburn Hills


It’s another hot, late August morning at Riverside Park in Auburn Hills. The recreational area is mostly empty, with only a few people scattered around the park. Two women seek shade at one of the picnic tables by the entrance, chatting and eating their lunches. An older man walks out of the parking lot and onto the trail that wraps around the park. The path shows off nature at its finest; towering trees with lush, green leaves and the steady stream of the Clinton River.


The trail is part of the larger Clinton River Trail, a 16-mile path that travels through the Oakland County cities of Auburn Hills, Rochester Hills, Rochester, Pontiac, and Sylvan Lake. Meanwhile, the Clinton River covers 760 square miles in four counties: Oakland, Macomb, Lapeer, and St. Clair counties. According to the website for the Clinton River Watershed Council, the waterway moves through 60 communities, starting in Springfield Township in Oakland County, and ending in Harrison Township, where the river flows into Lake St. Clair.


While Auburn Hills only makes up a small part of the Clinton River Trail, the city is creating initiatives to attract residents to the river recreationally, or with new developments built by the riverfront.


Out of the five cities that make up the river trail, Auburn Hills was the first one that became interested into turning former rail line Michigan Airline into a walking and biking pathway, says Parks and Recreation Director Brian Marzolf. The city bought the abandoned property in 1999, propelling Rochester, Rochester Hills, Pontiac, and Sylvan Lake cities to develop a trail in their communities. The Clinton River Trail officially opened in 2003, with the five towns forming the Clinton River Alliance.

Downtown Auburn Hills. Photo by David Lewinski.


“We all agreed that we were going to keep it a trail and we manage and maintain it ourselves,” he says.


The city has several projects in development along the riverfront. A new amphitheater and splash pad is expected to open next May in Riverside Park. According to the Oakland Press, the project will consist of 300 seats and 200 lawn seats, a 950 square-foot dance floor, and a play area.


The amphitheater and splash pad has been in development for ten years, but the venture began making progress in 2016 when Auburn Hills launched a fundraising campaign. Stephanie Carroll, manager of business development and community relations, says the project was stalled because the city did not spend any tax dollars. Instead, organizations like the Auburn Hills Community Foundation and the Tax Increment Finance Authority helped the city reach their goal of raising $1.5 million.


“We’re hoping it will be a destination,” says Carroll. “With the amphitheater and pavilion, people can come and watch concerts and enjoy the splash pad and eat in our restaurants and enjoy our downtown, so it’s a nice compliment.”


In addition to generating recreational and entertainment venues for residents, the city is focusing on implementing more housing.


“Eighty percent of our tax base is commercial/industrial, and only 20 percent is residential,” says Carroll. “We only have 23,000 residents, but over the last couple of years, we’ve seen nearly $200 million in residential investment.”


One of the newer developments is the housing complex, The Parkways. Located off of Adams Road, the development completed its first and second phases in 2016 and consists of 76 townhouse units and 72 stacked flat units. The final phase of the project will be a three-story, 160 unit senior living facility called Blossom Park, which is expected to be completed next spring, says Carroll. The Parkways also has access to the Clinton River Trail.


Carroll says the complex is “very popular,” and there is currently a waitlist for those who wish to move into the townhomes.


“What we’re hearing and seeing is that people want walkability,” she says. “They want outdoor recreation, and that [The Parkways] sits right off the Clinton River Trail, which is fantastic, and we’ve gotten a lot of great feedback.”


New Baltimore


To the east of the Clinton River is Lake St. Clair. The body of water covers 63.1 miles, reaching the city of Algonac in St. Clair County to the north and Grosse Pointe Park in Wayne County to the south before flowing into the Detroit River. The lake offers 41.7 miles of paddling opportunities, with the city of New Baltimore being one of those destinations. Residents of the charming Macomb County town have prime access to the water, as the Walter and Mary Burke Park and Beach offers an spectacular view of Lake St. Clair.


With the lake as its main attraction, New Baltimore is using the water as an advantage for bringing in new development.


“There is a lot of interest in our industrial zone, there’s interest in our commercial zones, and there’s interest in our central business district,” says Mayor John Dupray. “Developers see New Baltimore as a place they’ll like to be. When people come, businesses follow, and that’s what’s happening in our downtown.”


One of the many projects coming to the picturesque small town is a mixed-use development called the Liberty Building. According to The Voice, the two-story, brick building is one of the oldest structures in the city, as it was originally constructed in 1919. Located on Main and Maria Streets in the downtown district, the 3,800 square- foot building was formerly the Christie-Olszewski Funeral Home.


Bonnie McInerney-Slater, the assistant to the mayor, says the space was also a brewpub at one point and may have been a saloon and dancehall in its early years. Now, the Liberty Building will house a dance studio, six apartments units, and a restaurant. The project is set to be completed by the end of September.


Tom and Tony Fahoome Construction is in charge of developing the complex. The brothers say they wanted to create a way where they could bring more residential living in the downtown area, as well as new businesses.


Bobby Higgins will be bringing his new business to the complex when he opens up his bar and restaurant, The Wooden Valve, in the coming weeks.

Downtown New Baltimore. Photo by David Lewinski.


“I googled, ‘Where did the word beer tap come from?’” he says. “They used to make beer in wood barrels, and they would take a wooden valve and pound it into the barrel to get out the beer. So I looked up to see if anyone had the name ‘Wooden Valve’, and nobody had it, so that’s how I came up with the name.”


While Fin’s offers a little bit of everything, from burgers to seafood, The Wooden Valve will feature Latin food, with “a Korean barbecue fusion.” Higgins says the restaurant will only serve small plates, which will include five types of tacos, two types of beans, four types of salsas, and two types of guacamole. He will also offer non-Latin items, such as gourmet burgers and poutine fries.


On the drinks side, The Wooden Valve will offer a four-page menu, consisting of 32 taps of Michigan craft beers, as well as bourbons, tequilas, and cocktails. One of the specialty drinks will be infused bourbons, with flavors such as apple pie and coffee.


“What I will create for New Baltimore is something you would see in Rochester, Royal Oak, Ferndale, or downtown Detroit,” says Higgins.


With the opening of his new restaurant, Higgins hopes customers will come to Fin’s for dinner and finish the night with a drink at The Wooden Valve. Higgins says after running a restaurant in Royal Oak for 20 years, he enjoys the friendly atmosphere of living and working in New Baltimore.


“Royal Oak got too crazy, and I decided I wanted to look for a small town,” he says. “I was originally looking at Clawson and Berkley, but then somebody called me and says, ‘I know you’re not looking on the east side, but I have the perfect place for you and your wife.’ So we came over that night and decided that night this is our spot. This is the best city I’ve ever been in. The people make this city, and that’s really great.”




As Lake St. Clair flows south through Macomb County, it eventually empties into the Detroit River. The river is 32 miles long, traveling from Detroit to the city of Gibraltar before depositing into Lake Erie. For paddlers and kayakers, the river is part of the Detroit Heritage River Water Trail. According to the Michigan Water Trails website, the waterway is divided into four segments: Belle Isle and Detroit, the Rogue River, the Huron River, and the Lower Detroit River. The city of Wyandotte is part of the Lower Detroit River segment, as it is south of Detroit. The small town is one of 18 communities that makes up the southern region of Wayne County, commonly known as “Downriver.”


Wyandotte has been a popular destination in recent years, with the additions of stores and restaurants such as Bobcat Bonnie’s, Total Health Food, and Whiskeys on the Water, as well as its annual street art fair and wine crawl. The city has several projects in development, such as transforming the former city hall on Biddle Avenue into a mixed-use development with business space, as well as units for apartments or condos. A mixed-use development is always in the works at a former post office on nearby Oak Street.


While the riverfront is usually seen as an attraction for new businesses, in Patt Slack’s experience, prime access to the water can also be seen as a “hindrance.”


The Wyandotte Downtown Development Authority chairperson says many chain stores and restaurants have passed on building a location in the city because of its location off the river.

Riverside Kayak Connection. Photo by David Lewinski.


“What we heard and will continue to hear is that, ‘You don’t have four places to pull from, you only have three,’” Slack says. “Because we’re on the river, they consider that we don’t have anyone behind us, so we’re missing a population to be able to attract consumers from. I can’t tell you how many people we’ve contacted that have told us that we’re not near an expressway, we’re kinda off the beaten track even though we’re easy to get to. But it's been a handicap, we’ve had to figure out how to get business because big businesses would not come.”


Since chains would not come into Wyandotte, the city has watched a plethora of independent businesses open and flourish downtown, often staying in the community for 30 years or more. Chelsea Menswear opened 75 years ago, White Furniture has been in business for 72 years, and boutique Willow Tree has been open for 50 years.


Slack is a business owner herself, as she has been managing River’s Edge Gallery for almost 40 years.


“I think the key in Wyandotte has been businesses that are already here continue to change and grow, and then new businesses can see how they fit in.”


One of the newer businesses in town is the combination bar, restaurant, and arcade known as The Silver Ballroom. Great for kids or for the kid at heart, the space offers over 20 pinball and arcade games from the 1970s to the present. Titles to choose from include Ghostbusters, Attack from Mars, Pac-Man, and Super Mario Brothers. The Silver Ballroom also serves a full breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu, as well as Sunday brunch. Owner Jeremy Sladovnik is not a rookie when it comes to running his own business, as he has operated Joe’s Hamburgers next door to the arcade for nine years.


“An arcade was something that myself, a few of my close friends, and staff members have enjoyed,” he says. “When the space became available, we wanted to do something super cool and fun in our town. No place Downriver has a spot like this.”


The Silver Ballroom opened on St. Patrick’s Day of last year, and business has been growing steadily each month, says Sladovnik. The arcade has started to host events such as an Open Mic Night every Tuesday and has become a place for birthday and graduation parties, and even a few weddings.


Sladovnik, who was born and raised in Wyandotte says he could not imagine living anywhere else but his hometown.


“I like the fact that I’m able to raise my children here,” he says. “I like the fact that I’m making a difference in the community. Everybody down here that’s running a shop, they add their own personality and character into our city.”


Read more articles by Micah Walker.

Micah Walker is a Metro Detroit-based journalist.