Downtown Trenton will mark a major milestone next summer. But don’t expect any parades or special proclamations from the mayor on this one.
When late June rolls around it will have been 25 years since the Mulias & Ellias department store was destroyed by fire.
I remember writing a newspaper column a short time after the fire stating that it would take Trenton a “long time” to recover from the blow … “perhaps as long as five to seven years,” I think is roughly what I wrote.
I’ll be the first to admit I was a little off on that. It sounds pretty odd to even say that now. The weirder thing is that, at the time I thought I was being pretty conservative in making such a projection.
I mean, you tear down the burned-out remains and then you figure out what to replace it with, right? How much simpler could it be?
The tear-down part wasn’t too difficult, but the whole process of trying to replace it was a different story altogether.
Once cleared of debris and backfilled, downtown’s largest contiguous parcel of land produced an abundance of angst for business owners and city officials alike.
The controversial diner that former owner Isadore Mulias eventually built covered roughly two-thirds of the store’s former footprint and had a layout that was very much contrary to the wishes of the Downtown Development Authority, which was hoping to see the site rebuilt with a more traditional downtown “zero-setback,” meaning the building should come all the way to the sidewalk to be consistent with the rest of the structures on the block.
For the longest time “the diner” was looking like a potentially endless boondoggle as a progression of operators came and went, with none able to make site draw enough people to pay their overhead, much less make a profit.
After nearly 25 years, though, the site seems to have finally turned the corner, thanks to the vision and passion of new owner Chris Hancock. Hancock steadily has been turning the location into a regional destination as the Round House BBQ in the 13 months or so since its grand opening.
Round House is drawing rave reviews — and customers from as far away as Monroe, Oakland and Washtenaw counties, and even northwest Ohio.
That’s because Hancock saw a need for a true “authentic” barbecue restaurant in the area and proceeded to put together a plan to create an outstanding one that could compete with the best the metro Detroit area has to offer. And ever since the opening he and his staff have been working their tails off to make sure it all results in a pleasant experience for all those who make the effort to get there.
As a result, he has become part of a core group of hearty downtown Trenton business owners who have managed to find ways to survive and at times even prosper in spite of the new dynamics of a downtown that no longer automatically brings a steady flow of customers to their doors.
For the most part, those people (and you know who you are) have done it on their own through hard work and then by taking it upon themselves to market their products and services and build a customer base.
It’s a “destination” mentality that needs to continue to grow if the downtown is ever going to obtain the vitality that so many well-wishers would like to see. And with the recent news about the $13 million redevelopment of the Riverside Hospital site and the possibility of up to 200 jobs coming with it, there may be a legitimate opportunity to create some sustainable momentum.
When used as a marketing or business development term, a “destination” is an enterprise that customers seek out on their own because, in most cases, it provides something that no one else nearby does — or is noted for providing that product or service in a manner viewed as better than the shop or restaurant right down the street. Thus, the shopper is willing to travel a little farther to be the beneficiary of those products or services.
Destinations can be created as individual businesses or as sectors comprising multiple businesses. In recent years the downtown has evolved a core nucleus for at least two potential destination sectors. One is restaurants. The other, even more recent to emerge, is boutique-style shopping for both new and resale apparel.
Downtown’s “wild card” asset is the Trenton Village Theatre, home of the Downriver Youth Performing Arts Center, which continues to evolve as the region’s most active and dynamic outlet for cultivating young talent.
Now, you might think that since it’s a “youth” theater it really doesn’t generate any spendable dollars for the rest of downtown. But those youths usually have parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or other adult relatives who come to performances, rehearsal or even just to drop off and pick up the kids for any of the theaters numerous other activities.
I like to look at the theater as a wild card because it has great potential to keep growing. The theater also has great potential to serve other uses that could draw large crowds downtown. And all this grew out of what was once just a very small performing arts group that didn’t have a true home it could call its own.
Hmmm. The tiny 350-seat Trenton Village Theatre a regional destination? You bet. Many of its members are from throughout the Downriver area, not just Trenton.
“It’s kind of a force that’s unstoppable,” said Trenton dentist Noel Jackson, one of DYPAC’s founders and its current president. “You’ve always got these kids that are involved with the program and then associated with that are all these support adults — families, people who are helping with costuming, all of that sort of thing. So, that has its energy to it and I don’t see that ending.”
Along with “energy,” one of the other words you hear Jackson use frequently is “synergy,” which, in my mind at least, is kind like energy on steroids — or at least after a couple cans of Red Bull. More accurately, synergy is what occurs when “two or more agents join forces to produce a combined effect that is greater than the sum of their individual effects.”
DYPAC has a synergistic element within itself, but Jackson said the group’s activities also have the potential to create synergy with downtown businesses. He already has experimented with that by teaming up with some of the restaurants to create “dinner and theater” packages that provide discounts to theatergoers. He’d like to do more promotions like that, but the options are sometimes limited.
Hancock, who said he would love to be a part of the rebirth of the downtown, sees that same lack of business density as a big hurdle to overcome.
“Downtown Trenton needs a lot, unfortunately,” he said.
The hospital project, if it materializes as everyone is hoping, would be a major step in the right direction.
But maximizing the impact will likely take more than a wait-and-see attitude from the business community in general.
“All of us business owners need to stand together,” Hancock said.
And, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, standing together sure beats the alternative.
Joe Hoshaw Jr. is editor and co-publisher of the Trenton Trib. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.