Jack Strayer: Niles’ Main Street: The destination of a lifetimePublished 8:54pm Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Just a few weeks ago, officials from Niles Main Street and the Downtown Development Authority were notified that the city’s Main Street had been selected as Best Main Street Destination in Michigan by the national “Official Best of Destinations” (officialbestof. com). Holland, Mich. was named Best Heritage Destination and Petoskey, Mich. was selected Best Vacation Destination.
We will be hearing more and more about this designation in the weeks ahead, beginning with a Discovery Channel program in early July as well as coverage by the Detroit’s WWJ-TV and other television programs. Niles Main Street is already preparing a roll-out of a branding and marketing campaign that will only enhance the award and its prospects to make Niles an even greater destination.
Lisa Croteau, program manager for Niles Main Street, and its president, Chickie Landgraf, have worked hard to lead the volunteer efforts to improve Niles’ Main Street, and their hard work and dedication have paid off. Beginning at the St. Joseph River and rising to the crest of the hill at Fifth Street, Main Street has been dramatically transformed in recent years.
My connection with Main Street spans three centuries, beginning in the 1880s when my great-grandfather G.B. Winter opened the Spot Cash Grocery on Main Street just west of Front Street. It is long gone, along with all of Front Street from Main to Broadway, but I was young enough to remember what Main Street looked like in the 1950s and 1960s. Further up Main Street near Third Street, where Niles’ Styles shop is now located, my great-grandfather Frederick B. Eaglesfield opened a dry goods store, also in the 1880s. I wonder what my ancestors would think about a computer-generated website naming their Main Street the best in Michigan? I can only imagine that they would be as proud as I am now, and glad that I returned to my hometown in the 21st century to live out the rest of my life.
I left Niles in 1976 and moved to Washington DC. At that time, Niles downtown was a bustling, prosperous business district with few vacant storefronts. Whenever I would return home, I noticed a steady decline in the appearance of Main Street. But beginning in 2000, things began to change. The streetscape project and the horticultural awakening of Main Street along with the “Big Brown Takedown” of the Kawneer Company’s Shadowform store fronts gave the entire downtown a vibrant new look. When the brown facades were erected, it initially gave the street a modern and sleek look, but as the years wore on, the facades became dated.
But there is more to Niles’ downtown heritage and renaissance than the architecture. Foremost there are the merchants who keep their shops neat and attractive, drawing more people to Main Street. The Riverfront Park with its bandstand and veterans’ memorial has become a popular destination and serves as a magnet for countless festivals each year, and concerts all summer long. It is these varied events that make Main Street the destination it has been designated — the best.
Niles Main Street and their volunteers help produce programs year round and they are responsible for developing the popular Bensidoun French Market and Artisan Faire — right on the site of Great Grandpa Winter’s Spot Cash Grocery.
All of us in the City of Four Flags owe Lisa Croteau and Chickie Landgraf a standing ovation and our heartfelt accolades in their efforts to rebuild Main Street. For many of us, it is the destination of a lifetime. Let the branding and marketing begin.