Pursuing growth, Wyandotte doubles down on arts & culture

A few years back, Matt Buskard says his thoughts on the city of Wyandotte were best summarized as: "Whatever."


But as Buskard began to notice more and more Wyandotte residents stopping by his Corktown restaurant, Bobcat Bonnie's, he began to take an interest in the waterfront downriver community. Earlier this year he opened a second location of his restaurant in Wyandotte, and today he emphatically describes the city as a "gem."

Matt Buskard. Photo by David Lewinski.


"You don't really think about it, and downriver itself gets such a bad reputation," Buskard says. "And I've got to tell you that is all stigma. There's no actual truth to that."


Buskard is just one of the players, both established and new, who are setting out to write a new chapter in the story of Wyandotte's cultural scene. The city may be best known for the large and long-running Wyandotte Street Art Fair, but there's much more to Wyandotte's culture. A variety of new initiatives are underway to beef up the city's offerings in arts, entertainment, food, and drink.


Expanding the arts


Perhaps the second best-known artistic institution in Wyandotte is the Downriver Council for the Arts (DCA), which aims to advance the arts in 21 different downriver communities from its headquarters in downtown Wyandotte.


"We've kind of got two challenges," says DCA executive director Erin Suess. "We've got this big old building that we have to have full of arts and cultural events, but then we also have to have a presence in the other 20 communities."

Erin Suess. Photo by David Lewinski.


Suess transitioned to the executive director post last year after five years on DCA's board and another 15 years of involvement with the organization before that as an artist. Since then, the 13-year Wyandotte resident has sought to raise the DCA's profile in numerous ways – not least an ongoing renovation of the organization's 106-year-old building.


Carpet has been torn up in the building to reveal original hardwood floors, which are now utilized for regular ballroom dancing classes. The building's theater is under renovation to expand its stage and remove antiquated seats. And Suess says the DCA is planning to redo rooms in the back of the building to create living spaces for the many artists who've inquired about studio and living space, some of them Detroiters who are being priced out of their current spaces.


"Being in a building like this allows us to grow more and offer more arts and cultural events and hopefully host more people," Suess says. "Not only can we bring artists to this area, but we can also work with the young community to bring arts and culture to them."


One such DCA-based youth arts outreach program is the Downriver-Detroit Student Film Consortium (DDSFC), which got underway last year. Wyandotte resident Scott Galeski, a former Wyandotte police officer who retired to pursue a career in filmmaking, was motivated to start the group after judging a number of student film competitions throughout Michigan.

Scott Galeski. Photo by David Lewinski.


"I came to realize that students from Detroit and downriver Detroit were not represented in these film festivals, and it's because a lot of the schools don't have the same opportunities as the schools north of Detroit have," Galeski says.


So Galeski launched the DDSFC, a free filmmaking program for downriver and Detroit kids. Volunteers lead participants through filmmaking classes at the DCA, and two resulting student films have since been entered into the Digital Arts, Film, and Television festival.


Galeski is now a DCA board member, and he says he hopes to see "a very big art community" arise around the renovated DCA building. He values the arts community he's discovered in Wyandotte since diving into his film career.


"I never thought of myself as an artist," he says. "I like the people, the imaginations. It's a different world from what I'm used to."


Hungry for more


Arts and entertainment aren't the only elements of the Wyandotte scene that are on the rise.


"The growth of the bar and the restaurant scene is really palpable," says Joe Gruberm who recently departed from his role as Wyandotte Downtown Development Authority (DDA) director.


Gruber cites the popularity of new establishments like Bobcat Bonnie's and Whiskeys on the Water. Bobcat Bonnie's has had a surprisingly tumultuous history for a restaurant that opened just this March, but in the end, its story only validates the audience for new dining and drinking options in Wyandotte. The restaurant shut down in September due to disagreements between Buskard and his partners, who previously operated Bourbons, Brews, and Bayou in the same space at 118 Sycamore St.


Buskard says he was dismayed by that development.


"We loved being in Wyandotte," he says. "We would never, ever, ever have left. Our whole intention was that this was going to be very much a long-term kind of thing."


But in the end, Buskard negotiated to buy the business and the building lease from his former partners and is opening Bobcat Bonnie's. He says he received a "big response" when the restaurant announced its closing in Wyandotte and a "gigantic" one when it announced the reopening. He describes the town as "very open" to new concepts.


"Right now I think the food and beverage scene in Wyandotte is hungry for more options," he says. "I think they are very much sick of the same old, same old. I think they're looking for stuff that a lot of people sometimes take for granted – the cooler ideas, the ritzier food and out-there kinds of concepts."


Whiskeys on the Water owner Josh Cade, who grew up in Wyandotte, also notes that his town has shifted in the past five to 10 years towards a new focus on making downtown a "real gem."


"I've seen it go from just a hardworking, blue-collar town to people wanting to do something different," he says. "We want nice places and more options, not the same old thing."


Community challenges


It's not all smooth sailing in Wyandotte these days, however. Gruber says boosting downtown retail has been "a tough nut to crack." And a redevelopment of downtown's former Sears building – much-hyped in 2015 – has stalled out.


The DDA recently issued a new request for proposals for the Sears site, which is comprised of two parcels totaling 33,000 acres. The city is now currently considering two proposals for eight- to nine-story mixed-use developments there.


Gruber says downtown Wyandotte currently has 96 to 98 percent residential occupancy, but average residential and commercial rental rates are "all over the place" – making the area somewhat of a tough sell for newcomers.


"It's hard for outside developers to look at a piece of paper and say Wyandotte's the place to be," Gruber says. "Meanwhile, we feel all this really palpable excitement and development and activity, so we're trying to get people interested and get them on board the train."


Cade says Whiskeys on the Water has seen plenty of out-of-town visitors since it opened last year, and he suspects that downtown Wyandotte already provides a less crowded alternative to bigger destinations like downtown Detroit. But he says the community still needs a central destination a la Campus Martius. He's hoping to achieve something along those lines with a new business he currently has in the works that he says "could bring Wyandotte over the top."


"I don't think anybody really wants it to blow up to where it's so bustling you can't get down here and enjoy it anymore," he says. "But I think it really can be the next Ferndale or Royal Oak."

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