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For Subscribers Down on Main Street: Pontiac

Pontiac perseveres through pandemic, looks to reignite resurgence

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Pontiac, the city that once brimmed with breweries, auto jobs and swag, has had its ups and downs just to survive over the years.

The downtown was starting to make a comeback in 2019, business owners and city officials say, but then the coronavirus pandemic hit last year. And hard.

But city officials and business owners say Pontiac's resilience helped it weather the initial waves of the virus and may help it reignite another resurgence. 

Shops along Main N. Saginaw Street in downtown Pontiac on June 18, 2021.
Shops along Main N. Saginaw Street in downtown Pontiac on June 18, 2021. Daniel Mears, The Detroit News

At one point, the most urban city in Oakland County had Arts, Beats and Eats (which left for Royal Oak), and many bars and breweries that gave the downtown action and purpose. It was once a stronghold for General Motors.

But over the decades, the city shrank and shed jobs. Businesses came and went. Then strides were being made, especially when crime declined after the then-financially strapped city disbanded its police force in 2011 and contracted out law enforcement to the Oakland County Sheriff's Office.

Then last spring, COVID-19 struck and some restaurants and other businesses closed or moved out. But others hung on. And the city "actually added new businesses during the pandemic," said Pontiac Economic Development director Linnette Phillips, who added that several companies like United Wholesale Mortgage expanded and hired people.

Phillips declined to provide figures on the number of companies and employees.

Little Mo sous chief Richard Norfolk makes an order of Shrimp Madison at the Pontiac restaurant. Business suffered during the pandemic and is about 30% below where it was pre-pandemic.
Little Mo sous chief Richard Norfolk makes an order of Shrimp Madison at the Pontiac restaurant. Business suffered during the pandemic and is about 30% below where it was pre-pandemic. Daniel Mears, The Detroit News

"When we came in, the reason we picked this place was because Pontiac was rumored to start being on the uprise like the '90s," said Bill Swan, the general manager and chef at Little Mo restaurant on Saginaw Street. "Oh man, this was the place to be, like a Royal Oak or what downtown Detroit is now." 

Kevin Scott, who owns Little Mo, said he opened the spot in December 2019 and it was beginning to see progress.

"By March, we were hitting our numbers and all of a sudden, March 16, the governor had to shut everything down," Scott said, referring to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's emergency order in 2020 to temporarily close bars, casinos, theaters and other public places while limiting restaurants to carry-out service and delivery.

Business has begun coming back, he said.

For Khem Williams, owner of Khemistry beauty salon, the pandemic was a special struggle because she had just started her business.

"I wondered: Would I be able to pay bills without making money and would the landlord work with me?" she said. "For the most part, God made me come back here and was still going steady. I work best through stress. Everything is just a lesson."

Williams lost employees and struggled but she improvised and made wigs and sold them from her shop.

"I actually lost a lot of girls who were working here because they got comfortable working from home and that was stressful because I built a team for it to kinda, like crumble, but it opened the door for new people to come," she said.

Shops along N. Saginaw Street in downtown Pontiac on June 18, 2021.
Shops along N. Saginaw Street in downtown Pontiac on June 18, 2021. Daniel Mears, The Detroit News

Phillips, the economic development director, said the city has offered support to small businesses for the past year during the pandemic, such as help with workforce development, waving fees and providing reimbursement to expand to outdoor dining.

Despite some losses because of COVID-19, new businesses have moved in as well. The city has about 1,200 business, Phillips said, some of which will benefit from city events such the traffic from the Dream Cruise.

"They've been affected adversely," Phillips said about the businesses hit by the pandemic, but signs are pointing to a rebirth. "The pandemic affected everyone. It wasn't just the Pontiac business community. There's something that's never even occurred before."

But Phillips said "there's so much potential here" with news businesses coming in.

"We've got the new Amazon facility and United Wholesale Mortgage, which is an employer of over 5,000 people," she said.

There are others who have had some success despite the pandemic. 

Shelby Berger, who runs Main Street Pawn Shop downtown next door to Williams' salon, said despite the pandemic, business at his place "has been steady."

"It's been an adjustment trying to get through these COVID-related times but fortunate enough that this place for so long, it was supported throughout the pandemic."

Shelby Berger of Main Street Pawn Shop shows off one of the many guitars they have including a 1959 Gibson Byrdland in Pontiac on June 18, 2021.
Shelby Berger of Main Street Pawn Shop shows off one of the many guitars they have including a 1959 Gibson Byrdland in Pontiac on June 18, 2021. Daniel Mears, The Detroit News

Good things are coming for Pontiac's downtown with the cannabis industry and other businesses, Berger said.

"I do see a little bit of a rebirth going," he said. "This city's tough. Downtown's coming back. And it's looking better than it did."

lfleming@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2620

Twitter:@leonardnfleming

About this series

The Detroit News went downtown this year to find out what happened during the COVID-19 pandemic in the hearts of five cities: Albion, Calumet, Flint, Pontiac and Vassar.

What happened in the hearts of these cities in a Midwestern state with problems few would envy?

What stories would the downtowns tell? Over five Mondays, The News is sharing them one at a time.

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