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Dexter warily looks to future as newest Mich. city

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Dexter — Tucked away in the rolling countryside outside Ann Arbor, tiny Dexter hopes bigger truly is better.

Claire Sprau, 56, of Ann Arbor, plays Christmas music on her French horn in front of the Dexter Bakery. Sprau plays in the town band. Dexter, near Ann Arbor, is Michigan’s newest city.

The village's charms attracted so much growth over the past several decades that residents decided Nov. 4 to become Michigan's newest city. But residents hope the city doesn't get so big that it loses its small-town appeal.

Village officials began taking steps toward becoming a city nearly a decade ago. And following lots of paperwork and countless trips to Lansing, the city charter was adopted by 54 percent of 1,769 residents who cast ballots.

The issue was hotly contested and is still so controversial that many residents won't say how they voted. Theresa Bell, 46, is among them.

"From my heart, I always want to call it the 'village' of Dexter," said Bell, who was born and raised here and owns Dexter Flowers, on Main Street. "If there are benefits to making it a city, I will welcome it with open arms. But I'm always going to call it a village.

"When I think of a city, I think of a large, cold community where people don't stop to talk to each other."

Residents of the city itself represent only a portion of the Dexter community. Many who live in the surrounding areas consider themselves Dexter residents. And they have strong opinions on cityhood, even though they didn't get to vote.

"This is where my children go to school, this is where I grocery shop, and where our teenagers are employed," said Linda Brewer. "I live outside the city limits in Webster Township, but I would have voted yes.

"It gives us more control over what happens in our own community. We should be making more of our own decisions."

Dexter's 190-year-old downtown business district is filled with historical brick buildings and dotted with sculpture, murals and other street art. Main Street's red brick walkways and decorative street lights are festooned with greenery and red ribbons for the holidays. Pedestrians duck in and out of shops and independently owned restaurants.

Downtown Dexter is bustling. The village’s charms attracted so much growth that residents decided Nov. 4 to become a city.

Eric Piccione, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area, stopped in while visiting Michigan this week. "I think Dexter's a beautiful place," Piccione said. "There are things in the shops here that we're not going to find in our area, particularly the hand-crafted things."

In the words of City Manager Courtney Nicholls, Dexter is "a really quintessential small town."

"You can walk through the neighborhoods and see moms rolling strollers and flying kites," Nicholls said.

Due in part to that small-town allure, Dexter's population grew 74 percent from 2000 through 2010, when the U.S. census put it at 4,067. By this past July, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments estimated Dexter's population had grown to 4,700.

According to Nicholls, becoming a city will save the town and its residents lots of money. Previously, part of the village was in Scio Township and part in Webster Township. Each of those townships provided elections and assessments for its part of the village.

The village paid the townships about $340,000 annually for those services. And residents paid taxes both to the village and to the township in which they lived. The change eliminates those township bills.

"Basically, it brings the city together as one, rather than being split," Nicholls said. "We were providing all the services a run-of-the-mill city provides, except for assessments and elections.

"A lot of villages are very dependent on (their) townships, and we just weren't. We could eliminate that layer of government."

None of that makes a difference to Bailey Pichan, 28, who voted against Dexter becoming a city.

"I voted no, just to keep it small," Pichan said. "I've lived here since I was 4, and when I moved here there was nothing here. Sometimes when places get too big, they lose their charm."

Water power from Mill Creek and the Huron River has been valuable to businesses like the Dexter Cider Mill.


About Dexter

Here's what the new city has to say about itself, according to its website:

The area was settled in 1824, 13 years before Michigan became a state, when land speculator Samuel L. Dexter purchased a large tract of land and founded the village. It was known as the "Mill Creek Settlement" until the village was platted in 1830 and the name was officially changed to Dexter.

Mill Creek and the Huron River, which form much of the western and northeastern boundaries of the village, respectively, have long been valuable resources to Dexter. A sawmill was built in 1827, a woolen mill in 1838, a grist mill in 1844, and a cider mill in 1886. After being appointed county cjurt justice in 1826, Dexter reportedly established a post office in his home, shuttling mail between there and Ann Arbor on horseback.

Dexter was chief justice of the Washtenaw County Court and a University of Michigan regent. His home just northwest of the village was built in the early 1840s. It is said that it may have served as a refuge for slaves on the Underground Railroad.

On March 15, 2012, Dexter was struck by a strong tornado, causing substantial damage to local houses and businesses. There were no deaths or injuries reported.

On Nov. 20, 2014,Dexter officially became a city after its charter was filed.