New businesses pump life back into downtown Pontiac

Posted on February 18, 2013

Pontiac — There’s new life inside “the Loop.”

The city’s downtown — bounded by a stretch of Woodward Avenue that circles the central business district like the frame of a tennis racket — is reinventing itself with a wave of young residents and technology-based businesses.

Since late 2010, Pontiac has received tens of millions of dollars in state and federal grants that have given it a much-needed face-lift. At least 47 vacant or blighted buildings have been demolished, and there are plans to raze the little-used Phoenix Center — an amphitheater and parking facility — to make downtown’s Saginaw Street more accessible and to uncover the Clinton River.

“The old image of the gritty industrial town where nothing happens is changing,” Pontiac Mayor Leon Jukowski said. “You’re starting to see young people walking and living downtown, and that’s a huge step. It’s on its way back.”

Thanks to incentives such as free rent for multiyear leases, businesses have moved into the government seat of Oakland County, including an energy drink company, information technology firm, mobile app design company and a 3D printing facility.

Single-family homes are being built in the Unity Park neighborhood, and the former Sears store has been renovated into Lafayette Place Lofts, 46 residential units with a market and fitness center.

Its developer, Kyle Westberg, also plans to spend millions of dollars to rehabilitate the Strand Theatre, which has been closed since the mid-1990s.

And last month, General Motors Co., once the city’s biggest employer, announced a $200 million expansion of its Global Powertrain Engineering headquarters here that will create 400 engineering, research and technical jobs.

For the past decade or so, Pontiac has been known more for what it has lost than what has remained. The Detroit Lions left the Silverdome for new digs in downtown Detroit in 2002. GM ended production of the city’s namesake car in 2009, and the Arts, Beats & Eats festival bolted for Royal Oak in 2010.

Pontiac’s downtown, once a thriving shopping center, never really recovered after Sears closed in the 1970s. It briefly enjoyed some popularity for its bars, restaurants and music venues in the 1990s. The financially strapped city made headlines in 2009 when the state appointed an emergency financial manager to handle Pontiac’s day-to-day operations to avoid bankruptcy.

Framework for future

Business owners credit the emergency financial manager, Louis Schimmel, and current administration for stabilizing finances, streamlining the police force, reducing crime and creating a framework for the future.

While the city’s club scene — think Tonic and Clutch Cargo’s — has been a major draw for 20-somethings for years, business owners hope to keep them in the city long after the music stops. Owners and developers are committed to the same live-work-play ethos that’s become popular in downtown Detroit.

“In order to have a strong recovery, you need to have a strong business core,” said Glen Konopaskie, president of the Pontiac Downtown Business Association. “With the type of companies coming in right now, it’s a very interesting mix. We’re hoping to be a high-tech business incubator.”

That’s a far stretch from how the city used to be viewed.

In its prime, Pontiac was an extension of the Motor City — a car-centric town that was supported by the automotive industry. GM at one point employed 15,000 workers in Pontiac, where its plants rolled out cars and trucks like the Pontiac Fiero, Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, according to a December report by New York-based ratings agency Fitch Ratings.

Pontiac’s population began to dip in 1970 as residents flocked to newer suburbs and has dropped each decade since, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2010, the city counted 59,515 residents — well below its peak population of more than 85,000.

When GM ended Pontiac car production in 2009 — as part of its bankruptcy restructuring — the city unemployment rate skyrocketed, reaching 31 percent. It has since dropped to 21.8 percent, according to Fitch Ratings.

Jukowski said that’s still an unacceptable number — but unavoidable, given the city’s circumstances.

“A lot of the people in Pontiac, we’re the old relics,” the 55-year-old mayor said. “Until we find a way to re-educate the people that used to work at GM we’re going to continue to have unacceptably high unemployment. That’s just a fact of a transitioning economy.”

The biggest changes are happening on downtown’s Saginaw Street.

New shop owners and other businesses are moving in and longtime stalwarts — like Thrifty Drug Store and Bo’s Smokehouse — are updating their facades.

Dasi Solutions, a technology company that provides software, design and 3D printing services for companies like Detroit’s Big Three, started moving its headquarters from the outskirts of Pontiac to downtown in November.

“I see GM investing, I see what they’re doing with the (Lafayette) Market; we’re excited about it,” said Kevin Janson, the company’s sales manager.

Things ‘finally getting done’

A reduced crime rate makes the area more attractive to business owners, Jukowski said. Since the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office took control of the city’s safety under the emergency financial manager in 2011, response times have plummeted from 76 minutes to nine minutes and 45 seconds, and Konopaskie said the overall crime rate downtown dropped 45 percent from 2011 to 2012.

“Downtown Pontiac is statistically about as safe as Royal Oak or Birmingham,” Jukowski said.

Shelby Berger, whose family has owned Main Street Pawn Shop for 30 years, has seen the city’s changes firsthand.

He said the emergency financial manager and mayor have been “nothing but positive” working together.

“We’re notorious for things never getting done, and things are finally getting done,” he said.

The next step? Reviving the arts.

The Strand Theatre is set to open in late 2014 as a performing arts center, and Pontiac will display seven works from the Detroit Institute of Arts outdoors this summer as part of a DIA program.

Konopaskie said the city still needs more restaurants and retail to make a full comeback and parking is still a major issue, but he said that will all come in time.

“I was walking downtown with another business director and he said, ‘Listen, you can hear a faint heartbeat starting again,’ ” Konopaskie said. “This year, that heartbeat continues to get stronger.”

Michael Martinez, Detroit News.