Wyandotte’s downtown a business ‘destination’

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Nestled along the brilliant blue Detroit River across from Fighting Island, Wyandotte’s downtown is experiencing a revival as bars and restaurants, shops and other diversions move into renovated 100-year-old buildings.

The Downriver city, one of Wayne County’s oldest, is becoming a destination location with regular community events such as farmers markets, art fairs and beer festivals.

Joseph Gruber, Wyandotte’s Downtown Development Authority director, says the self-proclaimed “downtown of Downriver” has had nearly a dozen new businesses open within the past two years.

“Over the past five to 10 years, people have really noticed this town is a viable place to do business,” Gruber said. “It’s up to us to control the narrative of the town. Not only can your business open, but you can thrive.”

In addition to bars and restaurants, the downtown Wyandotte area has clothing stores, an art gallery, places to learn to paint and decorate pottery, salons, a candy store and a shop that sells kayaks and leads tours on the river.

Josh Cade and Edward Sollars opened Whiskeys on the Water, a Southern whiskey and speakeasy-inspired bar and restaurant, in March.

“We had way more people than we anticipated,” Cade said. “We don’t even have a sign yet. We did a soft opening, so there wasn’t a rush. It still came.”

Cade said he has seen the city transform within the past four to five years. “There’s a lot fewer vacant buildings,” Cade said. “Downtown’s starting to become something like Plymouth or Royal Oak.”

Sollars plans to reopen his Lions & Tigers & Beers Oh My! sports bar in spring 2017 (it burned down in 2012). Along with it, he’s designing a new craft beer and wine bar called Craft & Carafe and an outdoor bar named River Social.

Sollars said more downtown properties have gone up for sale in recent years, making room for a new generation of entrepreneurs: “They started selling, bringing in younger entrepreneurs, like me, who say, ‘We have all these ideas.’ ”

Bernedette Ostrowski of Wyandotte likes the variety the new restaurants and bars bring.

“There’s the riverfront, and then people can come and eat and shop,” she said. “There’s plenty of things to do. You can come here every weekend.”

Home prices rising

Since being incorporated in 1867, downtown Wyandotte has always drawn people from other communities, said Wally Hayden, president of the Wyandotte Historical Commission.

The plan for downtown Wyandotte to become a destination location likely dates to the 1960s and ’70s as the post-industrial decline began, hitting former industrial areas like Downriver hard, Gruber said.

“They felt that they needed to adapt in order to survive,” Gruber said of Wyandotte. “They knew they had something special and wanted to protect it, so they determined to become a destination community.”

In May 2012, the median sale price of homes in Wyandotte was $50,000, according to Zillow. It has slowly increased since then, reaching $82,300 in April. The U.S. Census Bureau reported an increase in the median household income from $43,740 in 2000 to $51,074 between 2010 and 2014.

The riverfront and frequent community events help draw people to the area, said Heather Thiede, Wyandotte’s special events coordinator.

On July 13-16, the Wyandotte Street Art Fair will feature more than 250 fine artists, 38 crafters, 21 food vendors, 24 nonprofits and entertainment. About 200,000 people attend each year.

“These events get people through the door of downtown businesses,” Thiede said. “They can promote themselves in a way they may not otherwise be able to get their name out.”

Other events — such as the farmers market every Thursday and the Wyandotte Business Association’s Third Friday, featuring monthly activities from beer fests and wine crawls to scavenger hunts and art displays — promote shopping locally and attract customers, said Jenna Smith, board president of the business association.

“It pushes people here to see what’s going on, what’s offered, and they make a stop back another time,” Smith said.

Tina Hirsch, Wyandotte’s market manager, said she encourages businesses and organizations to invest in the farmers market by sponsoring activities, setting up a booth or providing information to be passed out.

“The businesses benefit from the attention and foot traffic,” Hirsch said. “Thursday would be a truly uninspiring day without it.”

Opening its third location in early June, Dangerously Delicious Pies Co., which is also in Detroit and Baltimore, came to Wyandotte because of the active community, co-owner Don Duprie said. Duprie said he saw the vacant storefront in downtown and thought it would be a great opportunity.

“Over the past few years, the city was coming back together,” he said. “It’s growing every day. We like to be forward-thinking.”

Incentivizing growth

Uniquely, Gruber said, the city also had financial firms, insurance companies and health and doctors’ offices move into the first floors of downtown buildings as a way to keep businesses in the area.

“There was an understanding that these businesses were such tremendous assets,” Gruber said. “They wouldn’t typically occupy a first-floor space, but they can really participate in the revitalization.”

The city of Wyandotte is encouraging further growth through an incentive program. Wyandotte’s New or Expansion Business and Facade Improvement grants allow entrepreneurs to request up to $5,000 to start or improve a business.

Additionally, Gruber said the city is working to recruit businesses that could fit in well with the community. He said a target market analysis, made possible with a matching grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corp., is in the works and will gather information on real estate and foot and car traffic of several Downriver communities in hopes of using it to attract companies.

“We’re doing everything from reaching out to executives and brokerage companies to calling up a small business in northern Michigan who would fit the bill,” Gruber said.

Those are businesses that want to be part of a community, said the business association’s Smith. She added that whether it’s community organizations holding events, businesses doing cross-promotions or residents taking pride in shopping locally, everyone knows their role.

“We work so well together as a community,” Smith said. “It’s kind of a beautiful dance.”

Carol Winterholler of Trenton said she shops downtown to support its small businesses. “It helps the livelihood of these people,” she said. “It’s a great thing for the downtown Wyandotte area.”

Whiskeys on the Water co-owner Sollars said with every new business and event, Wyandotte inches closer to obtaining its goal.

“We want to bring everybody downtown,” Sollars said. “It’s a little destination.”


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