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October 31, 2012

The Phoenix Rises in Pontiac: An Urban Downtown is Re-tenanted

RiseofthePhoenix            It’s been plain for all to see that commercial landlords in older urban downtowns have taken a beating over the last several years.  A struggling state economy coupled with disinterest in older cities left owners with vacant buildings and falling revenues.

Tired of all the bad news, some other professionals and I began to meet weekly in 2010 under the auspices of what was then the  Pontiac Downtown Development Authority.  We thought that maybe the idle buildings could become the city’s biggest ally.

First we worked to change the negative perceptions—many of them unfair—people had of downtown Pontiac. We looked for—and found—hidden gems in the city. Then we devised a formal plan that offered one-year free rent to new businesses that could catch our bright vision and sign a minimum two-year lease. We called it the Rise of the Phoenix Plan.

A meeting of downtown building owners was next.  We explained our new positive-perceptions campaign and the need for extreme measures to combat the gaping vacancy rates downtown.  We gave each owner a copy of the Rise of the Phoenix Plan and waited. The result: a commitment of over 500,000 square feet of vacant office and retail space to our plan.

We took this commitment to the media.  The Rise of the Phoenix Plan caught the imagination of all the local radio and television stations. Their excellent coverage lead over 250 businesses to formally apply for the plan’s lease agreement.   We interviewed the most qualified applicants, deciding which empty downtown space would best match their business needs. Then we sent them to that building’s owner to work out a detailed agreement.

Within a little more than a year, the Rise of the Phoenix Plan resulted in 62 new leases. Those leases sparked a chain reaction of good things.  For the first time in a long time, downtown Pontiac was showered with positive media coverage The business community was re-energized and the Pontiac Downtown Business Association (DPBA)—despondent and inactive from the blows of the economy—reformed. The revitalized organization has again become a strong, lively voice in the downtown.  In fact, it has since replaced the Downtown Development Authority. Many of its new members, including its current chairman, came to town under the attraction of the Rise of the Phoenix Plan.

Yes, there have been some closings of  Rise of the Phoenix businesses in 2012.  That’s to be expected in any business climate. But more importantly, we attracted new businesses that either leased or bought outright  property in downtown Pontiac because of the energy generated by the plan.  At least 60 new businesses are here in 2012 that were not in this downtown a mere two years ago.

The new energy humming in downtown Pontiac is drawing attention all over the region. At the Oakland County Main Street annual meeting held earlier this year, both the Rise of the Phoenix Plan and the dynamic new DPBA were handed awards for their contributions to the area’s revitalization.  Those of us in the DPBA believe this is only the beginning of a long flight for this bird.

For more information, please contact Phil Wojtowicz at pwojtowicz@thomasduke.com.

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