August 5th, 2011 7:55 AM by Eileen Denhard
City is thriving despite state's trend
In the face of one of the worse economic downturns in Michigan's history, downtown Brighton has become a poster child for economic health.
"I'm not aware of any significant vacancies there," Matt Modrack said about the downtown area.
As the city's community development director and head of the Downtown Development Authority, he's often given credit for securing a key ingredient to the downtown's success: $2.5 million in state grants that paid for streetscapes improvements, new parking lots and major sewer work that added capacity.
These days, the city is hustling and bustling with activity, and city officials said that's no accident. They said the City Council and Downtown Development Authority made strategic decisions to encourage new development.
Those plans are now paying off.
A chemical manufacturer recently announced plans to move its corporate headquarters downtown, and The Pound! restaurant with rooftop dining is under construction. In addition, a brewery is looking to open in what old-timers call the old "Pink Hotel" building. There are plans for a bridal shop to move into the Next Generation shop at 209 W. Main St.
Officials said there's a deal for a gift shop to move into the former His Bible & Book House, which was the downtown's most visible vacancy. A portion of the upstairs of CW Interiors, which has been vacant since the building was constructed in 2007, should be filling up with new offices.
Even before these new developments, Brighton attracted several new significant restaurants and a $2.5 million, two-story, 13,000-square-foot office building on Grand River Avenue a block off Main Street that is nearly full of new tenants.
"I sense of lot of positive changes since I moved here 10 years ago," said Josephine Busch, who often walks to town from her home in the Pine Creek Ridge development just outside of the city in Genoa Township.
She said downtown merchants and organizations are pulling together to make things happen.
"There just seems to be more life in the town, more restaurants," she said. "It just seems there's always something new and fresh they're trying to promote."
Busch and her family used to live in Ann Arbor, and they began looking for an area to build a new home. She said Ann Arbor would be too expensive, so they looked at several communities including Plymouth, Novi and Farmington. She often visited Brighton because they owned property there, and the town had something special.
"I think it was the playground (the Imagination Station) that brought me here because our daughter was so small," Busch said. "I just liked it. It had a nice feeling about it."
"I like that I can walk downtown when I want to," she said. "I like that there is a downtown because so many other suburbs don't have that."
Brighton City Council member Claudia Roblee has watched the downtown's changes from a front-row seat. She lives above her downtown shop, Artventures, and has been actively involved in Principal Shopping District, which markets the downtown area.
When vacancies began increasing a few years ago and the economy tanked, Roblee said she had a "twinge of concern," but she knew city officials had a plan.
"I knew steps had already been taken to move us through this, and now we see the proof," she said.
She said new restaurants created an energy in downtown that attracted Excelda Manufacturing to locate its corporate headquarters on the former Greater Brighton Area Chamber of Commerce site.
Tony Pitts, chief financial officer for Excelda, said the company chose Brighton because it's "vibrant, dynamic and energetic." He said being downtown will help attract young employees to the growing company.
Roblee said she doesn't see Brighton's level of activity in other communities she has visited. She gives significant credit to Modrack.
"It's because our community development director has a vision, and he knows how to implement things and make things happen," she said.
She added that local groups are working together to bring new events and help each other.
Former City Council member John Tunis, who has been one of Brighton's ardent cheerleaders, said he always knew downtown Brighton had potential. However, he didn't expect the downtown's growth to take off so quickly.
"It's taking on a life form of its own," Tunis said. "It's wild."
Tunis, who lives with his wife on Main Street just west of downtown, said he's wrapping up his work in commercial real estate, but he recalled the challenges when the recession hit. He said people told him not to spend much time on the sites in Brighton.
However, even when there were vacancies in downtown Brighton, he said there was always a lot of interest in the downtown. He said the challenge was finding the right fit.
"I just never expected for it to take on legs to this point," Tunis said. "I knew it was going to be good, but I didn't expect to be like this."
He said the city's efforts were aided by real estate agents, investors and retailers, many of whom initially faced a rough road and had to endure the economic downturn.
"There's a very strong group of people who have worked very hard in redeveloping downtown," Tunis said, who added that he's optimistic about the downtown's future.
"I just think we're going to see more and more magical things happening downtown in the future," Tunis said.
Modrack called the downtown area "very dynamic."
He said redevelopment liquor licenses, which can now be purchased from the state for $20,000, played an important role in attracting new restaurants and helping existing ones. The former cost of a liquor license, which could reach $80,000 on the open market, was an imposing barrier for individual business owners.
Modrack said the city made the less-expensive licenses available after a study revealed 50 percent of available dollars for dinning out were being spent outside the downtown area.
In addition to attracting restaurants, Modrack said the city made an effort to always have capital-improvement projects happening. He said $2.5 million in state grants have been spent on sewer work, parking lots and streetscape projects — and this, in turn, has freed up funds to spend on other projects. These activities helped attract private investors, who saw these improvements in Brighton.
"The city and DDA made some very good strategic decisions that helped facilitate what is the private market," Modrack said.
Even with all this activity, city officials aren't kicking back to take a break.
While she loves downtown Brighton, Busch said there's still room for improvement.
"Personally, I would love to have a theater," she said.
She would like to have a place to see plays and live music, and she wants to have more restaurants. In the winter, Busch said, an outdoor ice-skating rink would be a nice addition.
As daunting as those ideas might be, one of those ideas is already on the city's radar. Roblee and city officials organized a brainstorming session this year to discuss ways to improve the downtown — and one idea brought up several times was an ice rink.
Contact Daily Press & Argus reporter Jim Totten at (517) 548-7088 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.