Anticipating growth at the Ford Motor Co. assembly plant and sitting along a jewel like the Huron River, Mark and Alisa Maul are expecting big things to happen soon in downtown Flat Rock.
“We’re a recreation destination and trail town,” Mark, co-owner of the Blue Heron Trading Co. in Flat Rock, said. “This will be a growing city with the Ford expansion. We need to plan for it. Change is coming either way.”
That’s why he ran for city council and was elected earlier this month. Together, he and other business owners founded the Flat Rock Local Business Group to support and sustain small businesses in town.
“Flat Rock has a lot to offer,” Maul said. “We encourage each other and share experiences. We need to support each other.”
Flat Rock has an unusual downtown because the Telegraph Road. corridor divides it into several main streets — E. Huron River Dr., Gibraltar Road, W. Huron River and Telegraph. Through its participation in the Michigan Main Street Program on an associate level, the city has formed an organization called “Flat Rock Our Hometown,” which consists of several committees to market and promote the city and particularly the downtown. A number of business owners and downtown supporters serve on the committees, Mayor Jonathan Dropiewski said.
“We’re in the process of rejuvenating our downtown,” which has seen many changes in the past 15 years, the mayor said. “Meanwhile, we continue to bring in new businesses while supporting businesses that are already here. It’s a two-prong attack.”
Among the changes was moving the 100-year-old Smith Hotel and Bar off Telegraph to the historic village located behind the Flat Rock Library at Gibraltar Rd. and Aspen Blvd.
Mayor Dropieski said he was glad to see the building restored and preserved, but said the city lost a key historic piece of the downtown that was attractive to visitors.
“We lost a big anchor in our core area,” the mayor said. “It makes it more difficult to rejuvenate.”
Shopper rewards effort started
Among the programs the Our Hometown group has initiated was a Christmas Passport that rewards people for shopping downtown during the Christmas season. Part of that effort is awarding “double stamps” on Small Business Saturday after Thanksgiving.
During the summer, the city makes coupon books available at the Our Hometown tent at both the Summer Blast and Riverfest festivals. The coupons can be redeemed at local businesses.
The city also focuses on the recreational and economic benefits of the Huron River that runs through the downtown. Many visitors use the river for kayaking, canoeing, fishing, biking and running alongside the major waterway.
“It offers great recreation, but also great economic development (spinoff) because visitors patronize our restaurants and shops downtown,” Dropiewski said.
The group will soon publish a guide of all local businesses, motels, drugstores and other places of interest in the city.
Calder’s, O’Reilly among best new businesses
The city had 15 new businesses open in 2016, the mayor said.
“I attended a lot of ribbon cuttings,” the mayor said. “We haven’t had that many this year… these kinds of things go in cycles.”
One of its biggest catches was Calder Dairy, which bought the former Heier Home Center & Lumber Co. at 28116 Telegraph just south of the Canadian Railroad overpass. The Carleton-based dairy is renovating the site and hoping to open by the end of the year, said Joe Pagano, chairman of the Downtown Development Authority.
“They’re working like crazy to get it done,” he said. “The DDA granted them a facade grant to fix up the outside of the building.”
In the past few years, the DDA has awarded more than 30 such grants to make facade or building improvements. About a half-dozen grants have been okayed this past year.
“We’re helping small businesses by providing grants to them,” he said.
The city has added a number of large and small businesses in recent years, including Meijer and Huntington Bank on Vreeland Rd., O’Reilly Auto Parts and Jimmy John’s on Telegraph, the Nut Hut on W. Huron River Dr., Wimpy Burger on Gibraltar Rd. and BYOB (Build Your Own Burritos) and Simpler Times General Store on E. Huron River Dr. Each business has found its niche market in Flat Rock, Pagano said. For example, the general store is popular for its coffee, tea, hot chocolate, ice cream and desserts, Pagano said. BYOB specializes in Mexican food.
Biggby Coffee, Captain Nemo’s and Blue Heron were other businesses that opened.
“We have a lot of interesting small businesses that have come in and still more coming,” he said. The mix of old and new businesses makes the city attractive to outsiders.
“The downtown businesses do what they can to support one another,” Pagano said. “They’re personal and they like talking to you.”
DDA adds lighting to Telegraph
The DDA is doing its part to promote business growth downtown by installing new energy efficient LED-style streetlights on Telegraph on the north edge of the city. The improved lighting can be seen from the Canadian National Railroad viaduct north to the city limits with Brownstown Township.
“The LED lights are so much more efficient,” Pagano said. “They last seven to 10 years compared to the ones there now that last one to two years.”
Mayor Dropiewski said Telegraph north of the viaduct no longer looks dark at night with the improved lighting.
“It used to get so dark, you could hardly see,” he said.
The DDA also is working on adding directional signs in four different sections of the city to show where some primary recreational, historic and government centers are located. These include a popular walking area with sidewalks near the Downriver Greenways bike path, Huroc Park and the river; the civic center area around city hall and Flat Rock Community Fields baseball complex; Gateway Center near the Sleep Inn and Crest Ford and the Telegraph corridor.