Longtime Dexter resident and businessman Fred Schmid gave a brief but fascinating first-person account of the development of downtown Dexter at Rotary Club’s weekly breakfast this past Thursday.
With the help of Paul Cousins, here is Fred’s account of how Dexter went from ruin to success over the past thirty-years:
“To start off I want to mention something about the history of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA). They were formed many years ago because many downtowns were starting to deteriorate. People were moving to the suburbs, businesses were running out, buildings were falling apart, sidewalks were crumbling, infrastructure was leaking, it was really just a horrible thing so the (Michigan) Legislature decided we had to do something about this and so they formed something they called “Downtown Development Districts.”
“A district is formed by basically drawing an outline around the business district. You’re not allowed to include a lot of residential, but once you’ve established this district then the next step is to put in what they call tax increment financing.
“This allows the DDA to collect taxes. The taxes at that moment are frozen and by “frozen” it means that anything prior to that goes to the city or local municipality. But as things improve downtown and things go up, taxes go up and the DDA can capture that extra tax and use it as funding for bonding to improve the downtown area.
“It was somewhere in the early eighties with Dexter, and Paul Bishop was very instrumental in forming the Downtown Development Authority, that he came to me asked me if I would serve on that. I agreed to and I’ve been there ever since. I’m the only member who was originally on the Downtown Development Authority.”
Fred describes the challenge of the early days of Dexter’s DDA and their first project.
“The area where TCF Bank and The Beer Grotto are now was dirt, gravel. The DDA purchased a small building that was on the property and our first project was we funded a new parking lot. We did that (first small project) because there were thoughts around the community that the DDA wasn’t really going to be able to do anything; that we were a bunch of people who didn’t know what we were doing.
“(During) that project, we had a lot of local residents that kind of looked over the project everyday just to make sure we were doing it right. So once we did that we decided we’d go for bigger things.
“The Masonic Temple was for sale. The Masons didn’t want it anymore. They were moving to Ann Arbor. We purchased that and turned it into a parking lot.”
The Masonic Temple was located on Broad St. between where currently Fink Law and an office building stand. The DDA purchased the building and also turned it into a parking lot which it is today. Paul Cousins told the group that there also used to be a public school there as well.
“Our big project was the downtown area. People who haven’t been here for thirty-years wouldn’t be familiar with what it looked like. There were empty buildings. Buildings were falling apart. Facades were in terrible shape. Signs on the buildings were tipped. The sidewalk was crumbling. When they had a hole in the sidewalk, they patched it with tar and just packed it down and so the sidewalk (was uneven in a series of waves).
“What really got the project going was once in the summertime, and I remember this, there was a water main that broke at Broad and Main Street; threw a geyser about twenty-feet in the air. I think people finally realized we’ve got to do something.
“The project was about $2.5 million and was funded on a bond. The downtown merchants agreed to a special assessment on which they agreed to fund more than their fair share. They said, “We will accept the increase in taxes. We will pay for this.”
“On the third vote (to pass the bond), the citizens agreed with us that we had to do this. That was our big project at the time and I think you can see the results down there.”
Paul Cousins described a little of what downtown looked like in the early 1990’s:
“All the streetscape down there from (what is now) Three Birds to the other side of main was all asphalt. There was no Peace Park. You could come down Main Street and veer off onto Fourth St. at full speed into the neighborhood.
“Now there isn’t hardly anybody who comes into town and doesn’t think we have a beautiful downtown. The infrastructure under the road, we put in new sewer and water as well.”
Back to Fred:
“We put new gas lines into the buildings, new water lines into each building downtown. There was another change that happened in the downtown. Previously, buildings were owned by people who didn’t have their business located in that building. They were out of town. They had inherited the building maybe from a parent.
“The opportunity was there for the shop owners to purchase their own building. Once they did that, they started to renovate the building, make it nicer, turn it into apartments and try to get people to come back to the downtown area. And as you can see now, it’s hard to find a parking space down there at certain times. All the businesses seem to be busy. I can tell you there was a time I could stand out at two-o-clock on the sidewalk in front of my pharmacy (now The Beer Grotto) and there was very little traffic going by on Main Street.”
Group comments highlighted other nostalgic, albeit peculiar, aspects of Downtown Dexter at that time. At that time what is now Hotel Hickman’s BBQ, was the police station. In fact Ripley’s Believe It Or Not listed the Dexter, MI Police Station as the smallest in the world. There was even a smaller, earlier one than that about where the gazebo in Monument Park stands today.
The breakfast ended promptly on time as always. Rotarians and guest bustled off to work with some lingering to further discuss their memories of the old downtown. Many thanks were given to Fred for filling in as speaker at the last moment when scheduled Guest Speaker Senator Joe Hune was forced to cancel due to a late night session that ran into the early morning hours.
You can find out more about Dexter Rotary and all their charitable work on their website.