Milwaukee Junction’s economic development could provide template for Southwest Detroit and beyond

Nicole Piach and her husband had long wanted to relocate their business, Banner Sign Co., from Hazel Park to one of Detroit’s rebounding neighborhoods.

They looked everywhere — from Rivertown to Midtown to Southwest Detroit — but never found quite the right space, until they stumbled upon an “ugly” building along an industrial stretch of East Grand Boulevard at Russell Street. 

While Milwaukee Junction wasn’t as vibrant as some of the other neighborhoods in the city neighborhoods, there were long-standing businesses and pockets of new activity in the historic area east of New Center and south of East Grand Boulevard that was once the heart of the automotive industry.
Nicole Piach
“It was a highly visible location,” Piach recalls. “We ended up striking up a deal.”

The Banner Sign Co. opened up in warehouse-like space in 2018, on the cusp of vast changes being planned for Milwaukee Junction. The area serves as a pilot district for economic change, under the auspices of the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC) Detroit, a national nonprofit that has worked in Detroit since 1990 to strengthen neighborhoods through strategic investments exceeding $200 million. The goal of this initiative is to promote economic development but also preserve neighborhood affordability for creative, design, and light industrial businesses.

LISC partnered with Vanguard Community Development Corp. and commissioned a study from Detroit Future City (DFC) to find ways to fund equitable economic development and provide support for the area’s small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Since the Milwaukee Junction framework study was unveiled in June 2019, some strides have been made toward implementing improvements. Some are visible — such as the in-the-works Black Bottom Park — others are in developing stages. 

Vanguard, which has worked on behalf of the neighborhood since 1994, received a $1.5 million grant earlier this year from the Knight Foundation to transform the streetscape of East Grand Boulevard, which straddles the Milwaukee Junction and North End neighborhoods. The nonprofit organization also has received a Michigan Main Street designation for a T-shaped area that includes parts of both Milwaukee Junction and the North End.

The East Grand Boulevard transformation effort will focus on improving the streetscape of 10 blocks from Woodward Avenue to I-75. Improvements are likely to include the planting of trees and flowers, the installation of benches and design elements, including way-finding signs and banners. 

“This project will transform East Grand into a beautiful, walkable, street that can be enjoyed by the entire community,” says Pamela Martin Turner, president and CEO of Vanguard.

Tahirih Ziegler, LISC's Midwest program vice president, says the non-profit is excited about the progression of the framework since the launch, including the Main Street designation from MEDC for Vanguard CDC.

"Over the last four years, LISC has invested nearly $475,000 into Vanguard CDC to support the economic development and anchor revitalization work in the historic North End," says Ziegler. "Our support has led to the development of Black Bottom Park, technical assistance for 40 small businesses in the North End, and COVID-19 grants for small businesses.”      

Pam Martin Turner, president and CEO of Vanguard, has high hopes for the transformation of the streetscape of East Grand Boulevard.

Taking the pulse of a neighborhood

Turner describes the project as community focused, with input coming from all aspects of the neighborhood.

“Rather than just hire architects, we want to have input from the community,” she says.  “We’ve asked people from various sectors — residents, artists, churches, small businesses and others in the community to think about these design elements and what they would like.”

A community identification sign also is planned at East Grand Boulevard and Woodward, to welcome people to the neighborhood. 

“There’s a practical purpose of identifying the neighborhood for people traveling — to identify where they are. It will also be a piece of public art people can enjoy and marvel at,” Turner says, adding that a local artist will be tapped for the project.

A series of community meetings on the boulevard project kicked off April 6 and will continue over the next few months. The three-year project is expected to wrap up in 2022 and banners and other design elements could be in place as early as this summer.

“It’s a big deal,” Turner says. “What was envisioned in the framework study was that East Grand Boulevard would have investment that would change the way it looks. It’s a logical place to start. It’s a historic promenade.”

“It would be really wonderful to see people walking this promenade again and not have this divide between East and West Grand,” she says.

With the Michigan Main Street designation, the community will receive five years of intensive technical assistance from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. The assistance will focus on revitalization strategies designed to attract new residents, business investments, economic growth and job creation. 

“The designation gives us a lot of access to important resources,” Turner says. She hopes to bring the entire business community together, those within the Main Street boundaries and those outside the designation area.

“This honor brings visibility to our North End businesses: within Milwaukee Junction as well as within the neighborhood,” she says. “The designation brings financial resources, business technical support, business attraction and retention, infrastructure improvements as well as  branding to our business district as a whole.  All these attributes make a strong competitive business community.”

One of the framework recommendations also called for the creation of green and park space in the community, amenities sorely lacking.

The 2.5-acre Black Bottom Park is taking shape at Hastings and East Grand Boulevard, next to Vanguard’s headquarters. Trees and flowers have been planted and funding is being sought to build an amphitheater as a venue for performances as well as a showcase for literary and visual arts. The park honors and elevates the rich artistic and cultural district of the North End. 

“There is still a lot to be done,” Turner says. “Getting funding is always challenging. Everyone has a vision for what they want to see and it’s not always congruent. We need a common vision. All things considered, considering COVID and COVID’s impact on the city, our neighborhood has come through pretty well. We’re moving along.”

Muralist Sydney James created 'Girl with the D Earring' on the Chroma building last year, a 107-year-old former storage building in Detroit's Milwaukee Junction.

A framework for other areas

Following in the steps of Milwaukee Junction, LISC Detroit engaged with Detroit Future City and Southwest Detroit Business Association to provide an industrial land use redevelopment study in Southwest Detroit. DFC is currently gathering data from businesses, public agencies, resident organizations and other stakeholders about the designated district.

"We are looking forward to sharing the recommendations with the community when the framework study is completed and released in June 2021," says Ziegler. 

In a similar format to the Milwaukee Junction framework, DFC will offer recommendations businesses and residents can support in terms of creating jobs and connecting those jobs to residents and protecting the environment. 

“In Southwest Detroit, we’re looking at an area that has more traditionally been an industrial area,” says Tom Goddeeris, deputy director of DFC. “The challenges have to do with industrial areas butting up to neighborhoods. How can this area be redeveloped and bring in jobs and business and not negatively impact the surrounding neighborhoods with dirty truck traffic.”

The district is bounded by Michigan Avenue, Livernois, Toledo Street and Interstate 96 and Corktown. The area is crisscrossed by two railroad lines, with industrial areas straddling the tracks. Residential pockets can be found on either side. 

“One thing we hear from residents who live around these areas is that they’re concerned about any environmental impact and an increase in semi-truck traffic,” Goddeeris says. “There’s already a lot of semi-truck traffic in southwest Detroit. It’s one of the areas we’re trying to address.”

Goddeeris says the district is home to trucking and logistics businesses, some other strong businesses, some vacant buildings and a couple of larger parcels of vacant land. 

“It’s not a place that makes sense to bring in large manufacturing like an auto plant,” he says. “It’s not appropriate for that.”

Tom Goddeeris, and the team at Detroit Future City, will offer recommendations businesses and residents can support in terms of creating jobs in Southwest Detroit.

Seeing impact on the ground

Since Banner Sign Co. moved into renovated space, Piach has noticed changes in the neighborhood -- new businesses, including a coffee shop and a restaurant, and vacant industrial buildings being turned into residential lofts and other uses.

“There’s a different look and feel for sure,” says Piach, who has been involved in some of the Main Street initiative discussions, still in the early stages. “I think there is a lot of potential and the neighborhood is going in the right direction.”

Relocating to Milwaukee Junction not only placed Banner Sign Co., a family-owned business that has been around since 1924, closer to its customer base in Detroit, but also helped Piach find a community. She is now a board member of the North End Business District and is involved in the East Grand Boulevard beautification focus group.

“I wanted to be a part of a community and I found it,” she says. “We moved here to be a part of something.”

This is part of a series supported by LISC Detroit that chronicles Detroit small businesses’ journey in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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