A view of the Ann Arbor DDA from a downtown business owner
I've been in business downtown since 1972: first, starting the Fleetwood Diner, and then buying Hertler Bros. (now Downtown Home & Garden). More recently, I've founded Mark's Carts and Bill's Beer Garden. Before that, I was hanging out in the bars and pool rooms. I've seen a lot of change.
When I arrived on the scene, the anchor stores like Sears and Montgomery Ward were fleeing to the malls, and soon retail stalwarts Muehlig's, Goodyear's, and Kline's would fail. At one time, there were 12 vacant store fronts, blowing newspapers, drunks lining up to get into the Union Bar at 7AM who were leaning on telephone poles by 10, and hookers working out of the Earle Hotel. Hookers! Add to this desperate picture crumbling parking structures, sidewalks waiting for slip-and-fall suits, rat-infested alleys, very few pedestrians by day and almost none at night. Downtown Ann Arbor, our beloved burbling hub, was a desperate hardscrabble mess.
Downtown was abandoned, and no one was willing to step up and take ownership until the Downtown Development Authority was created in 1982 and a long process of investment in infrastructure began. It would still be a failed downtown if the DDA over 30 years hadn't virtually rebuilt every parking structure, fixed sidewalks, put lights in alleys and repaved them. They created a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere by providing benches, flower boxes, intimate lighting, bike racks, and murals. Winos have been replaced with smiling families and children skipping ahead down the sidewalk, eager to take advantage of all downtown has to offer.
The reason Council let downtown fall apart decades ago is simple politics. Municipalities never have enough resources to satisfy all their constituents and the downtown area, while highly visible, doesn't have enough votes to wrestle money from other worthy entities like schools, parks, and neighborhoods. What the DDA has done is advocate for downtown and get us a fair share of the funding. And my view isn't merely self-serving. The robust culture, the hipness of downtown, is what attracts visitors from all over Michigan. High-tech businesses are also dependent on a hip local culture to attract the skilled employees they need in order to prosper.
As downtown goes, so goes the City.
Further, if playing a seminal roll in turning around the downtown isn't enough payback, remember that in flush times the DDA already sends back buckets of money to the City. In voting on the funding mechanism for the DDA, I hope Council gets beyond political gamesmanship and thinks hard about the long term interests of the City. As far as I can tell, the DDA is the golden goose that has transformed downtown Ann Arbor into a thriving small business hub, a destination for tourists, and an inspiring new high-tech corridor. Let's not strangle it.