Corktown’s Tiger-less Michigan Avenue keeps popping

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

When the Detroit Tigers moved downtown in 2000, Corktown was left for dead by many. Now, locally grown food, craft cocktails and restored historic buildings are the all-stars in the old neighborhood on Michigan Avenue.

The strip has become one of the most gentrified in Detroit. And the money keeps flowing: This spring, work begins at the empty Tigers Stadium site for the Detroit Police Athletic League Headquarters, a youth sports field and most likely, a major residential and retail development.

Beyond the stadium plans, there are five other developments in the works. They range from an anticipated multimillion-dollar housing development by billionaire Tony Soave, to the overhaul of a former auto repair garage into a chic Thai restaurant and bar called Katoi.

There are few empty buildings left on Corktown’s Michigan Avenue. That certainly wasn’t the case when the stadium became empty after the Tigers left for Comerica Park. Many of the surrounding blocks of Michigan already were struggling. Even before the Tigers left, homes and at least one nearby church had been bulldozed and became parking lots. What was left on Michigan was a handful of sports bars such as Nemo’s and Casey’s, and a few other small businesses.

Now, every new restaurant, upscale boutique and high-end bike shop seems to push the strip into a more expensive zone.

“People don’t come here looking for a dive bar like they used to, or a blue-collar place full of regulars,” said Andrea Relkin. She owns Casey’s Pub, a bar founded in 1983 by her father, who was a Detroit firefighter. Relkin grew up across the street in a house that’s no longer there.

Casey’s continued to thrive when the neighborhood declined because a small group loyal to Michigan Avenue — who harbored a mix of nostalgia for Tigers Stadium, Corktown and the city — kept it going. Cops and firefighters were regulars.

“Now, people want a vegan option and craft cocktails, that’s not what we are,” Relkin said. So, as Michigan Avenue hums, Casey’s Pub — the building, the liquor license, the whole deal — is up for sale for $499,900.

“We are getting offers,” Relkin said. “As far as what’s happening on Michigan. Hey, things change and if that’s what people want; it’s good they can get that in Detroit and not just the suburbs.”

Michigan Avenue and Corktown aren’t the only strip and neighborhood that are thriving in Detroit. But it’s one of the few areas where the estimated hundreds of millions of investment over the past decade came from small businesses.

Many credit the arrival of the Cooley family — brothers Phil, Ryan and their parents Ron and Patty — in the early 2000s as a turning point. The Cooleys are investors, developers and entrepreneurs. Phil and Ron Cooley were a big force behind the opening of Slows Bar BQ in 2005. The restaurant, with its hip, refurbished decor and its attention to the menu by chef Brian Perrone, became an instant success. It remains popular, and multiple other restaurants hailed for locally sourced ingredients and interior design now dot Michigan Avenue.

“The Cooleys understood the value of the buildings on Michigan; they seemed to know people wanted to feel like a great city neighborhood again,” said Ray Formosa. Formosa owns Brooks Lumber on Trumbull, just across the street from the old Tigers Stadium site. Formosa says the hardware store and lumber yard is the oldest continuous business at the same location in the city.

Formosa grew up in Corktown, a block away from third base. By the time the Tigers left, it was the last house on the block. The rest had become parking lots, he said. His family arranged to have the house moved to another part of Corktown, where it still stands.

When Formosa bought Brooks Lumber more than a decade ago, he had to use his life savings because no bank or investor believed Corktown was worth the risk.

“Now, I get offers out of the blue all the time,” Formosa said.

“I know people sometimes complain Corktown is getting too yuppie or whatever, but I’m overall happy to see so many people who want to be a part of it again.”