Sprucing Up Southwest Detroit

DETROIT—When you’re a small business hoping to do big things on a meager budget, every little bit helps.

Through its Façade Improvement Program, Southwest Detroit Business Association is giving business owners that wee boost when they want to renovate their storefronts or bring their businesses up to code.

Supporting moderate to mass improvements

Through the Façade Improvement Program, property owners in the W. Vernor & Springwells Business District can apply for grants from $2,000 to $15,000.

The mini-grants of up to $2,000 per address are for smaller or inexpensive changes that have significant visual impact or that correct code violations. Mini-grant improvements like new signage, lighting, power washing, painting, and door and window replacements have spruced up local businesses, including LA Insurance, El Nacimiento Restaurant, Clearwater Properties, and a State Farm agency.

Business owners planning for larger scale improvements can apply for up to $15,000 in grants for architectural services and up to fifty percent of construction costs. Improvements for these might include completely rebuilt storefronts or new signage, lighting and awnings, such as those found at Honey Bee Market, Paul’s Pizza, Hacienda Mexican Foods, and the Buena Vida building.

Investing in the neighborhood

Patricia Ouellette State Farm Agency, located in southwest Detroit, is currently renovating a formerly dilapidated building on W. Vernor, between Central and Springwells, into new office headquarters. The upstairs space has already been renovated into beautiful apartments.

The business was awarded four mini-grants of $2,000 each (one per address number) for small façade improvements, for a total of $8,000. They will receive the reimbursement check when the storefront improvements are completely done.

According to Elias Galarza, co-owner of the building and office manager of the State Farm agency, he and Ouellette have put more than $100,000 into the renovations and Galarza has done a substantial part of the work himself to save on costs.

“We’ve taken a dilapidated building, and we’re bringing it up to date,” says Galarza. “It’s an extreme makeover.”

Galarza says the mini-grants will be used only for the front of the building for new windows and doors, awnings, and exterior lighting.

But the façade improvements are about more than prettying up blocks of southwest Detroit, says Kathleen Wendler, president of the SDBA.

“Much of the success of the program is based on the fact that competition is good for business,” says Wendler. She saw a bakery put in a new striped canvas awning through the program, and later a competitor bakery installed a copper awning.

She says it also make residents in the community proud of their neighborhood aesthetics.

“People don’t like to walk into a dirty, deteriorated place and give people their money,” says Wendler. “They’d rather patronize a place with a quality environment.”

Issuing grants and providing assistance

The Façade Improvement Program began in the mid-1990s and was initially funded through a Community Development Block Grant program. Because of success of the southwest Detroit program, the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Commercial Revitalization continues to fund the larger projects.

Smaller projects are funded by JP Morgan CHASE Foundation and Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a national organization that funds community-based economic development projects. SDBA does the applicant screening and technical support and gets the word out about the program.

Property owners apply for Façade Improvement Program funds through the SDBA, and a committee of business owners review the applications to decide on the grant award.

For larger improvements, the business owners work with an architect, but must pay a $500 deposit first. An architect is engaged in the larger projects to ensure that renovations are designed to code and all standards and guidelines are met. The deposit helps to ensure the intent to follow through.

In the end, the owner, as the primary investor, puts much of his/her own money into the project and has to submit documentation in the form of receipts, waivers, permits and certificates of inspection before reimbursement is received.

SDBA also provides technical assistance to property owners trying to wade through code compliance and navigate the city’s construction guidelines.

Wendler says that for 20 years, the City of Detroit did not have a proactive code compliance program. But, now city officials are targeting the “low hanging fruit.”

“If no one is communicating with you about what the city’s requirements are, you can just do what you want,” says Wendler of the city’s long lax standards. “So, just introducing code compliance was a major issue.”

Creating a beautiful neighborhood

The fixing code violations aside, the really exciting stuff comes with improved storefronts that contribute to quality of life in this densely populated corner of Detroit.

“We tout southwest Detroit as a walkable, bikeable place,” says Wendler. “Not only can you walk or bike to a favorite place, but walk by lovely buildings on your way.”

The Façade Improvement Program has triggered additional investments by business owners who have experienced the benefits of better looking storefronts.

Paul’s Pizza, which received a grant for a new awning and signage, is now expanding into the adjacent parking lot. SDBA is offering assistance to help the business owner through the process.

SDBA also assisted a pharmacy owner who was becoming very frustrated in his efforts to expand his pharmacy. Ready to move out of the neighborhood, he has decided to stay and continue investing in real estate in the area.

“If business owners, whose motivation is profit, see an area that is going up, as opposed to going down, they invest,” says Wendler. “Our job is to ensure that property values are going in a positive direction and that the visual character of the community continues to improve.”

And if the 70 businesses that have taken part in the Façade Improvement Program are testament to that movement, southwest Detroit, indeed, is swinging in the right direction.


Need to make renovations to your small business facade? Contact the Southwest Detroit Business Association.

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