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Downtown Ferndale Michigan Transforms into Destination District
By Christine Walden Hughes
If you haven’t been to Downtown Ferndale lately…
SEVENTY-FIVE PERCENT REHAB RATE
That change is no small change, either. When the Ferndale Downtown Development Authority (DDA) released its 2010 statistics, it included a remarkable 10 year total—$57 million in public and private reinvestment, illustrated repeatedly in the before and after stories throughout the district. Over the past 10 years, nearly 75 percent of the district’s buildings have been rehabbed and/or historically preserved; redesigned streetscapes and a narrowed West Nine Mile Road created a user-friendly environment with plentiful bike racks, park benches, and places for socializing.
Eventually, the aggressive reformatting attracted a creative class of entrepreneurs who today dominate the district.
“When I moved to Ferndale 20 years ago, the downtown vacancy rate was very high and it was mostly wig shops,” said Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter. “You could have rolled a bowling ball down the sidewalk in Ferndale and not hit anybody. Today, it’s lively, it’s crowded, which brings its own challenges. For example, parking is an issue now. But those are good problems to have.”
Coulter, a former Oakland County Commissioner, explained that changing Nine Mile from four lanes to two lanes and allowing parallel parking was the catalyst for the positive changes that followed.
“It was a controversial issue at the time to slow traffic down and make it two lanes, but that was really the beginning in bringing people and foot traffic back to downtown Ferndale,” Coulter said. “We have to get passed this mentality that the roads that go through communities like Ferndale are mini-expressways to get you some place quickly. Instead we have to realize these roadways really are a fabric of the community and that they can be a source of recreation and community.”
From upper story ad agencies and film production companies to street level green gardeners and tea room psychics, Ferndale’s downtown district is a healthy and ever-changing mix of savvy businesses. Ten years ago, the vacancy rate peaked at 30 percent. Now, it hovers around 6 percent. In 2010, 40 (40!) new businesses opened their doors. Sure, some replaced others (a net gain of 26), but each closing is now viewed as an opportunity for a stronger business to bring new product, new consumers, and new energy.
NATIONAL TRUST FOR HISTORIC PRESERVATION AWARD
Citing these facts and others, the National Trust for Historic Preservation recognized downtown Ferndale in 2010 with its highest honor—the Great American Main Street Award (GAMSA). Only two other Michigan cities have ever won before (Bay City—1999/Holland—1997), and downtown Ferndale became the first in the Main Street Oakland County program to win, validating the revitalization program instituted in 2000 by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson.
Patterson praised downtown Ferndale for overcoming its past and charting a brighter future. “Through the leadership of the Ferndale DDA, its volunteers and community partners, downtown Ferndale has transformed into a strong creative, economic center in our county, unrivaled by others in Michigan and nationwide.”
Then-Governor Jennifer Granholm was equally effusive. “Downtown Ferndale is a beacon of hope in this challenging economy and is a prime example for cities across Michigan desiring to revitalize their own downtowns.”
In recognizing downtown Ferndale, the GAMSA judges cited the district’s remarkable statistics, turnaround vacancy rate, and the DDA’s unwavering commitment to the National Trust’s trademark Main Street Approach to economic redevelopment. Bottom line: The Ferndale DDA’s determination to stay the course saved a downtown once considered destitute.
“The Ferndale Downtown Development Authority’s story is about not quitting when everyone has,” said Doug Loescher, director of the National Trust Main Street Center. “From the quirky twists that it has put on its events to its commitment to sustainability projects…it is a true national model for revitalization.”
MAIN STREET PROGRAM KEY
The Ferndale DDA was instituted in 1980, five years after Michigan Public Act 197 legislated the mechanism to address the state’s deteriorating downtowns. DDAs were empowered in a number of ways, most notably to use tax increment financing to pay for improvements in the district. In 2001, the Ferndale DDA was accepted into the Main Street Oakland County program and became a nationally accredited Main Street program. Under the direction and determination of Executive Director Cristina Sheppard-Decius, the transformation began in earnest. A Certificated Main Street Manager and distinguished as one of Crain’s "40 under 40," Sheppard-Decius assembled a game plan that followed the rules of the Main Street Four-Point Approach®, and then found the stakeholders to implement it. An army of volunteers populated four committees—Economic Restructuring, Organization, Promotions, and Design. They brainstormed and tasked out ideas, they created a synergy, and they started to make downtown Ferndale and its programs the place to be if you wanted to be part of the change.
“Our volunteers had a huge impact on downtown Ferndale and are integral to our success story,” said Sheppard-Decius. “They are hard working, visionary, and dedicated. We would not have won the GAMSA without their continued support and determination to keep moving ahead.”
DOWNTOWN IS QUIRKY
Downtown Ferndale today is dotted with dozens of quirky retailers, convenient services, and 60-plus bars and restaurants. The day-to-day business economy is infilled with a variety of events, large and small. The Ferndale Woodward Dream Cruise is a marquee weekend in August, as is the art fair combo weekend in September—the DIY Street Fair and the Ferndale Funky Art Fair. Green Cruise, Fido Does Ferndale, Ferndale Film Festival, Ferndale Blues Festival, pub crawls, prohibition parties and, well, just about anything else that is fun and interesting contribute to the city’s personality and bring to it more and more friends. Though slightly taken aback by the departure of the highly popular Motor City Pride (to Detroit), downtown Ferndale responded with a new event, organized and staged by the city’s loyal and enthusiastic gay community.
The leader of the effort was the state’s first openly gay Mayor of Ferndale Craig Covey, now an Oakland County Comissioner, who credited a united community for the GAMSA win and the overall success of the downtown. “By bringing together key elements such as walkability, diversity, ecofriendliness, the city and the DDA together have built a downtown that people are proud to invest in—emotionally and financially.”
Going forward, the DDA is poised to keep up the momentum. “We complete projects and meet goals, but the work is never done,” said Sheppard-Decius. “You can’t stop looking ahead and figuring out how you are going to get to the future. What has happened over the last 10 years proves that. Now we are looking to the next 10, and beyond.”
THE MAIN STREET FOUR-POINT APPROACH®