Like every other city in Metro Detroit, Wyandotte has seen businesses close as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Joe Gruber, executive director of the city's downtown development authority, says the closures have been relatively few and most business owners he's talked to are "doing okay."
"All things considered, okay ain't bad right now," he says. "... Things are certainly tense and challenging, but we're rolling with the punches."
Several major developments are now underway in the city, and even without the annual Wyandotte Street Art Fair, downtown Wyandotte has continued attracting visitors with a variety of socially distanced outdoor events. Here's how Wyandotte has managed to continue thriving despite the unprecedented challenge of COVID-19.
Three new developments
When COVID-19 hit, developers Jason and Amanda D'Herin were already well underway with demolition and underground construction work on the site of Wyandotte's former post office at 166 Oak St. Their 91,000-square-foot development, known as The W Lofts, is set to include 11,500 square feet of commercial space and 49 residential units, crowned by a rooftop pool and bar.
The development is now moving full speed ahead towards a December opening for the commercial space and an August 2021 completion date, and the developers remain highly optimistic about the project despite the pandemic. That optimism is partly rooted in the D'Herins' other business ventures in Wyandotte. They opened The Waterfront Wyandotte, a restaurant, in 2016, and Jason D'Herin says 2020 has been the restaurant's busiest yet.
"[Business is] probably 55% higher than we were last year, which is actually insane," he says. "We were closed for three months and we're at 50% capacity."
D'Herin acknowledges that The Waterfront has been fortunate to have ample outdoor seating to work with during the pandemic, and some of his other tenants have been struggling. But he says the commercial spaces at The W Lofts are already mostly spoken for, and he expects that Wyandotte's walkable, waterfront downtown will remain popular through the pandemic.
"COVID is going to change the way everybody lives," he says. "We just have to be more familiar with our surroundings. I think it's something we just have to go on and live with."
The Offices. Photo by David Lewinski.
Just a block away on Oak Street, the Michigan Legacy Credit Union is also investing in a major reinvention of its Wyandotte branch. The credit union is using the location to pioneer an interactive teller machine (ITM), which will offer live video interaction with a teller. The renovated branch will feature a retro, '50s-style design, with the ITM designed to look like an old-school jukebox. The project will also allow the branch to act as a central hub for staff to interact with members via ITMs at other branches.
"It sounds crazy, but we're going to have contact center people in Wyandotte who could be on the video screen with members in Wyandotte or in Warren or on their phone," says Carma Peters, Michigan Legacy Credit Union president and CEO.
Developers Ron Thomas and Justin Bise recently made what might seem an especially risky choice in the COVID-19 era: opening up newly developed office space. However, their development at 100 Maple St. is a second location of The Offices in Wyandotte, a successful coworking space that they opened at 97 Oak St. in 2019. The new location opened in September and half the office spaces are already leased, which Thomas says was a "welcome surprise."
"I think there's going to be a shift away from large, stringent-lease, long-term-type deals and more into individuals renting offices for themselves," he says. "... I think that was true pre-COVID. I think COVID is just going to accelerate the move in that direction."
The coworking space represents just the 13,000-square-foot first phase of Thomas and Bise's plans for the 24,000-square-foot building, which once housed a bank and an insurance company. The remaining space, now under construction, will become six apartments and a fine dining restaurant called The Vault on First.
Sustaining "a sense of liveliness"
Although COVID-19 nixed this year's Wyandotte Street Art Fair, a massive annual draw, the city has found success with smaller events. This summer the city took a new approach to the Wyandotte Farmers Market, partnering with a local business to safely expand upon the market of years past.
To manage this year's market, the city turned to Rina Belanger and Angie Guzzardo, owners of The Vintage Market, a Wyandotte pop-up market featuring wares from over 300 Southeast Michigan artists and small businesses. The two saw it as a major opportunity to give their business a shot in the arm and to offer vendors they already worked with a new market for their goods.
Wyandotte Artisan Farmers' Market. Photo by David Lewinski.
The outdoor market occupies The Vintage Market's parking lot and surrounding streets, hosting 40 to 50 vendors every Thursday. Attendees are required to wear masks and socially distance while they shop.
"It's brought great business to our store as well and all the stores locally here, so it's really helping these small businesses to survive throughout the pandemic," Belanger says. "Without the farmers market this year, we probably would have been in a lot worse spot than we are. It kind of saved us."
This summer the city also introduced Beats on Biddle, a concert series held on Thursdays and Fridays. The series featured multiple acts at various outdoor downtown locations, encouraging visitors to stroll from performance to performance.
"It's not meant to draw huge crowds or bring a bunch of people out," Gruber says. "It's just meant to help sustain a sense of liveliness throughout the district and to support the bars and the restaurants and the retailers who are trying to get people into their businesses."
Beyond 2020 and beyond COVID
Gruber and others in Wyandotte are continuing to think creatively to make it through the pandemic in the short-term future. The city has been approved to create a "social district" wherein visitors may consume alcoholic beverages in designated commons areas outside the premises of the restaurant where they purchased their drink. Gruber says plans are underway to open the social district when the weather warms back up in spring 2021.
But Wyandotte's business community is also fully expecting the city to be uniquely positioned to make a full, strong comeback once the pandemic is a thing of the past.
"When you get into this town, it feels really warm. It feels really welcoming. It's got the river," D'Herin says. "Imagine if Royal Oak had a river if Birmingham had a river. Imagine what that would be like. Now if we can get people down to it and utilize it, we're capturing a whole new audience."
Gruber agrees, attributing the city's hardiness during the pandemic to its strong quality of life as seen in its bars, restaurants, shopping, and mix of apartments, condos, and historic homes.
"All the things that make us a great downtown every day of the week, every week of the year, regardless of the pandemic, are the same things that are making us a strong and resilient downtown during the pandemic," he says.