Michigan city hopes for downtown resurgence

The General Motors Pontiac Assembly plant in Pontiac, Mich.

TEXT OF STORY

JEREMY HOBSON: Pontiac, Michigan, has seen better days. Unemployment there is almost three times the national rate. The number of workers at General Motors' sprawling complex there used to be 15,000. Now it's 3,000. And businesses in Pontiac have fled the once-thriving downtown. But a new program there is re-populating some of those empty storefronts.

As Sarah Hulett of Michigan Radio reports, dozens of businesses have signed leases that give them free rent for a year.


Sarah Hulett: Stephanie White does hair for a living. For the past seven years, she did cuts, perms and weaves at a salon she started in a more affluent neighborhood next door to Pontiac. But shortly after Thanksgiving, she moved into an 1,100-square-foot space on Pontiac's downtown business strip.

Stephanie White: It has changed a lot, but I think it's coming back.

White grew up in Pontiac. She decided to relocate to her hometown after hearing about a program called "Rise of the Phoenix." She signed a three-year lease, and the first 12 months are rent-free.

White: That means I can build not only my salon, my clientele, and I'm looking for some workers to make it a nice experience downtown Pontiac.

The idea for free rent was the brainchild of a committee with the Downtown Development Authority. Phil Wojtowicz is a commercial real estate broker who sits on that committee. He says it polled the downtown building owners, and asked how many thought they'd have tenants in the next 24 months.

Phil Wojtowicz: And everybody said 'not likely.' And we said we have to do something to be innovative or aggressive; we had to think outside the box.

Wojtowicz says several building owners signed on to the plan, and more came on board after seeing tenants move in to empty buildings.

To get into the program, business owners have to commit to a two- or three-year lease, and Wojtowicz says they have to move in by the end of March.

Wojtowicz: In the spring of this year, there's going to be a lot of foot traffic in downtown Pontiac that otherwise wouldn't have been there.

That would be good news for hair salon owner Stephanie White. The Pontiac native says she looks forward to having a downtown that looks more like the one she grew up with.

White: Like maybe have a coffee shop down here, and also somewhere we can shop for clothing and other things as well.

So far 50 leases have been signed, including clothing stores, a fitness center and office space. About 10 more leases are in negotiations.

From Pontiac, I'm Sarah Hulett for Marketplace.

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