Development investments flow into Pontiac's downtown

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — This city has seen better days, but even Pontiac's harshest critics acknowledge brighter days are on the horizon.

After more than four years of scratching out of a financial emergency overseen by state-appointed managers, Pontiac cut its annual budget nearly in half, shed millions in outstanding debt, trimmed hundreds of city workers and privatized public services. It also got rid of everything from parking meters to costly city-owned properties such as the Silverdome, the home of the Detroit Lions before they moved to Ford Field in downtown Detroit.

Helping to make the recovery a reality is nearly $300 million in new investment, including major efforts within the downtown business district that developers hope will bring in young professionals interested in spending time downtown in new apartments or condos, restaurants or shops.

Interest in downtown Pontiac development is similar to what's being seen in some other large cities around the state. Grand Rapids and Detroit, for instance, have seen a resurgence in old building rehabs and new construction and an influx of young workers who want to live and play in the city centers.

One such project is the rehabilitation of the long-shuttered 858-seat Strand Theatre for the Performing Arts, which could reopen next year with $20 million in renovations.

"We have some big plans, and they are realistic," Strand President and CEO Bill Lee said. "There are 2.7 million people within a 20-minute drive of downtown Pontiac. We see the Strand as an important part in drawing visitors and new residents here."

The Strand, a former 1921 vaudeville theater and later movie house, has not operated since the mid-1990s. Lee said renovation is in full swing, and he predicts plays, concerts and community theater will make the Strand a destination for Metro Detroiters.

A screening room will be available for small groups to watch films in 21-inch wide luxury seats. And there will be an attached restaurant and bar, Lee said.

"We are hoping to open in late 2015," he said.

Down Saginaw Street, lofts, offices and retail spaces are either opening or envisioned in long vacant buildings such as the city's tallest, the 15-story Pontiac State Bank building, renamed the Oakland Town Center. The building is one of more than a dozen sites being acquired for renovation by the Indian Hill District investment group.

"We see the bank building and others as perfect for reuse," said Conrad M. Schewe, vice president of project development for CORE, which is handling construction services.

The investment group is dropping $40 million into reusing old buildings, including $20 million planned for the former bank building, built in the 1920s. Schewe said a restaurant or two is a possibility in the bank, which retains its glass teller windows, brass railings and granite features.

"We are doing due diligence to obtain the building and make it all happen," he said. "With any project like this, involving renovation and a historic building, there are a lot of arrangements that have to be made."

The building's top floors — expected to be converted into rental apartments or possibly condominiums — offer views for miles.

Pontiac still has obstacles, such as parking, according to Blair McGowan, a long-time club operator whose Crofoot Ballroom is routinely packed with music lovers.

"I'm encouraged by the investments and the growing plans for the city, such as the Strand," McGowan said. "But unless the city resolves its parking issues, success for everyone could be difficult."

McGowan referred to the nearby Phoenix Center Amphitheater and 2,500- space parking structure which, when built more than two decades ago, was viewed as downtown's best hope.

But no one ever properly managed the rooftop venue, the structure went into disrepair and became instead the focus of a legal battle over whether it is too costly to remain open and should be bulldozed. A demolition effort by the city was recently stopped in Oakland Circuit Court and the structure's future is still up in the air.

Investors such as Kyle Westberg, whose West Construction Co. is doing the Strand's renovations, counter there are still 2,100 surface spaces available downtown.

"We consider it (Strand) a catalyst project which will spur input from the public, the politicians and other investments," Westberg said.

He said 240 residential units downtown are all filled. CORE is looking at creating 200 additional units.

Other investments that could help support the city's economic recovery are:

■A $200 million, 138,000-square-foot expansion of General Motors' Powertrain headquarters on Joslyn Road.

■A $52.5 million Challenge Manufacturing Plant on the former site of GM's Pontiac Assembly Plant at 2100 S. Opdyke. The 400,000-square-foot auto parts plant is expected to employ 400 workers.

■A $40 million M1 Concourse auto "condos" and test track operation on Woodward and South Boulevard at the site of a leveled GM truck and coach plant.

■The $1.8 million Wessen indoor tennis courts at 121 Branch, south of Orchard Lake between Woodward and Telegraph.

Westberg said his projects north of Huron Street have already brought new life to old spaces. He renovated a vacant Sears building into a market and cafe, a 500-member health club and 46 lofts.

Schewe said the sacrifices and commitment made during Pontiac's financial emergency — such as having the Oakland County Sheriff's Office take over police duties from the city's depleted department — have made it the safest downtown in southeast Michigan and helped to spur investors' faith.

"With young professionals showing interest in the area and the nearby hospital, there is a real need for more residential," Schewe said.

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