“Why are we building big office buildings downtown?” “Why do we have all those bars and restaurants?” “Why can’t Royal Oak be like it was before?” I hear those questions often when I talk with voters. Here’s how I answer.

When I moved to Royal Oak in 1990, downtown was dead. People would say, “You could shoot a cannon down Main Street and not hit anyone.” Royal Oak was feeling the same retail pain that affected all traditional downtowns, starting in the 1950s and 1960s. People wanted to shop where they had many choices. They went to shopping malls and no longer valued iconic retailers like Field’s and Woolworth.

Royal Oak’s civic leaders rose to the challenge. They created one of Michigan’s early downtown tax increment finance districts, in which the increased taxes from new developments stayed downtown to foster even more growth. Food and beverage establishments are innovative and adaptive and they were the first to rediscover the advantages of our downtown. With a Starbucks on every corner these days, who remembers when coffee shops were a novelty? Royal Oak pioneered them in metro Detroit.

While our bars attract young people, our downtown restaurants and entertainment venues attract people of all ages. They enjoy barbeque, Italian, seafood, American bistros, fine wine, craft beer, sushi, Mediterranean, Iron Chef-worthy burgers, tacos, pizza, charcuterie and more. They go to Stagecrafters, the Royal Oak Music Theater, Mark Ridley’s Comedy Castle, the Main Art Theater and Emagine. They attend family-friendly free concerts at the library and on Center Street and on Fridays in June they experienced Main Street as a car-free urban plaza. They visit the Clay, Glass and Metal Fair and Arts, Beats and Eats.

What does all that mean to Royal Oak who seldom go downtown? Property values. Home sale prices. People want to live in our popular city and they’re willing to pay for the privilege. Some new houses in old neighborhoods sell for more than a half million dollars. Modest bungalows go for $200,000.

But what about that lost retail? For years, downtown retailers – and restaurants – have asked for daytime customers. Several years ago a task force of city officials and downtown representatives agreed on a goal to attract 180,000 square feet of private, first class office space downtown. We are close to achieving that goal. In two years, we will have more than 1,000 office workers eating lunch and shopping downtown. They will help preserve the charming small establishments that make Royal Oak Royal Oak. Some will want to live in the city, further improving property values.

These opportunities also opened the door for Royal Oak to achieve another city commission goal — the creation of a downtown park – and to solve a big problem: our obsolete, aging city hall and police station. Those new structures will better serve residents and reduce operating costs. A new parking deck will accommodate office workers on weekdays, dining and entertainment customers in the evening and Farmer’s Market and flea market shoppers on the weekends.

What makes Royal Oak Royal Oak? I think it’s our people. We can love living in a traditional city while still being open to new experiences and welcoming new people. We have created an extraordinarily successful, popular, desirable community. People want to live, work and play here.  I am confident we can grow enough to welcome them while still retaining Royal Oak’s unique human qualities.