‘New blood’ helps refresh Hamtramck business scene
Hamtramck — Zlatan Sadikovic wanted to take a leap in life.
The Huntington Woods resident was looking for a place he could afford in an urban environment where he could live and work.
Sadikovic found it in a 3,000-square-foot rundown building on Jos. Campau. After two years and a complete overhaul, he opened up a coffee shop, Oloman Cafe, in late 2016.
“I’m happy being here,” Sadikovic said while standing by floor-to-ceiling windows in his loft overlooking Hamtramck’s downtown. “I plan to stay here a long time. I hope the community is going to grow and things will be better in the coming years. It’s obvious we’re heading that way.”
Sadikovic, 58, is among the recent entrepreneurs joining Hamtramck’s diverse mix of businesses. From dessert shops, cocktail bars to cafés and reclaimed wood designers, business owners are moving into Hamtramck spaces, renovating buildings and increasing the vibrancy and life of an already diverse and densely populated city.
More small businesses are opening up shop in the two-square-mile enclave within Detroit, city officials say. That’s critical as the city, which has about 21,000 residents, faces the possibility of life without its General Motors plant, a large source of tax revenue.
According to Hamtramck officials, there are 568 registered businesses this year compared to 494 in 2015.
“It’s been steadily increasing since then,” City Manager Kathy Angerer said.
One draw could be the affordability of opening a business in Hamtramck.
As commercial and residential prices rise in Detroit — particularly in Detroit's downtown and Midtown Detroit — residents and business owners are finding Hamtramck as a viable option, Hamtramck Mayor Karen Majewski said.
According to LoopNet real estate marketplace, recent commercial properties listed for lease in downtown Detroit started at $1.41 per square foot in monthly rent compared to 83 cents a square foot in downtown Hamtramck.
“We see a lot that entrepreneurs are buying instead of renting,” Majewski said. “We’re kind of the beneficiary of some of that. Although our prices are going up, we’re still affordable whether you’re renting or whether you’re buying. We get a lot of people actually moving here who are moving from Detroit.”
The new blood
Hamtramck is home to the headquarters to a number of longtime businesses including Kowalski Sausage Co., Srodek’s Campau Quality Sausage Co. and Metropolitan Baking Co.
Joan Bittner is the owner of the Polish Art Center, an importer of gift items from Poland. The business has been in Hamtramck since 1958. She and her husband, Raymond, bought the store in 1973.
“We have had such an interesting eclectic kind of a new blood who's come in,” Bittner said.
Among those businesses entering the city in recent years are bike shop Wheelhouse Detroit - Hamtramck and dessert shop Le Detroit Macaron. Chocolatier Bon Bon Bon relocated within the city to a larger location, as well as grocer Al-Haramain International Foods.
Some entrepreneurs are taking over established businesses. Among them is Scott Aaronson, owner of the Hamtramck Hotel and Hostel on Holmes Street. He purchased the 24-room hotel in 2017 and renovated the place. It’s a draw for tourists and college students looking for an affordable place to live.
For short-term guests, rates are $29 a night for a bed in a dorm room, $39 for a private room and $59 for a private room with a double bed. Rates start at $450 a month for students.
Aaronson said at first, he was nervous people wouldn’t want to venture outside of Detroit to stay in Hamtramck. As the reservations started to come in, he realized he was wrong.
“It’s such an interesting place,” Aaronson said of the city. “In the summertime, you can open up the window and smell all sorts of food. ... It’s like living in a different country, but living in the center of Detroit.”
The business community serves a diverse range of customers, as the city has large Polish, Bangladeshi and Yemeni populations. Sadikovic, originally from Bosnia, says he sees that diversity among pedestrians along Jos. Campau and within the walls of his coffee shop.
“You can see people come from different walks of life,” he said. “Bengalis, Yemeni, African-Americans, Africans… It obviously reflects when people come to the coffee shop. Young people are everywhere.”
Sadikovic, a former photography department director at the Kresge Eye Institute, sold his house in Huntington Woods in favor of living and working in an urban setting.
He worked with family and a general contractor to transform the vacant, former Belmont Bar into Oloman Cafe.
And as if that wasn’t a large enough project, he also bought the 3,000-square-foot building next door, which he’s renovating to eventually house a photography studio on the first floor and a loft for him and his wife on the second floor.
“Adventurous people at the tender age of 55 deciding to start new life again,” Sadikovic said. “I think that comes with a cost, but I’m not feeling it like it’s a pain. Like any new project that you start in life, you learn cooking, you learn woodworking, something. I feel this is a positive good experience for me.”
Hamtramck has had struggles financially over the years, having gone under state-appointed emergency management twice in the last 20 years. The city was released from receivership in March.
But the city is bracing itself for the loss in tax revenue after GM announced in November that it would cease this year production at the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant. The potential closure is among five impacted U.S. plants as part of the automaker’s restructuring to save $6 billion by 2020.
As a result, the city faces a loss of about $800,000 in tax revenue from its general budget. The city's general budget is about $16 million.
“It’s a huge concern,” Angerer said. “That’s going to take effect in our next budget year that begins July 1. … It’s just starting, but it’s going to be very difficult. We’ve been through several years of downsizing our size of city government, and so we just emerged from emergency management a couple years ago and finally feel like we weren’t on wobbly legs and then we see this blow."
Angerer said she hopes to find revenue elsewhere.
“People come here on tours to visit our churches, our mosques," she said. "We’re the most diverse city in the state of Michigan. The most-dense city in the state of Michigan… The more businesses that come here, the better off Hamtramck will be.”
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, about 42 percent of Hamtramck residents are foreign-born, making it the most internationally diverse community in the state. And its population density is twice that of Detroit's.
Open for business
The city is in the midst of becoming certified as a redevelopment-ready community as part of a program administered by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. designed to help communities become more attractive to new business.
So far, the city meets about half of the program’s criteria, said Brett Hanlon, a planner with the Redevelopment Ready Communities program.The criteria defines how well a community integrates its redevelopment vision into its master plan.
“They really stood out as having a lot of strengths,” Hanlon said. “They’re the most walkable city in Michigan, according to Walk Score, which rates that kind of thing. They have a traditional downtown. They have the types of businesses you’d like to see for a pedestrian-friendly environment. They have a lot of strengths to work off of.”
Hamtramck was designated to participate in the MEDC’s Rising Tide project, which helps cities attract business investment and talent. In December, the city started what will be a yearlong process in that program.
There are also efforts to grow communication among business owners in the city. In addition to its Downtown Development Authority primarily made up of businesses along Jos. Campau., the Yemeni Chamber of Commerce is at the helm of forming a citywide merchant association for all businesses in Hamtramck. A second meeting is scheduled for this month, Angerer said.
A community within
Kyle Dubay and Bo Shepherd, owners of Woodward Throwbacks, purchased a 24,000-square-foot former car dealership in 2016 and the following year relocated their reclaimed woodworking company. The couple’s business had outgrown its space in southwest Detroit.
The first floor houses a showroom, while the second-floor space is used to create custom and retail pieces and store supplies. The building sat empty for about a decade before they moved in.
"When we first bought this building, we had all the small businesses coming over checking on our progress," Shepherd said.
Dubay added: "There was a sense that people were genuinely happy we were saving this building."
"I feel like Hamtramck is a place where you can be an entrepreneur and you can actually build and grow your businesses," Shepherd said.
The additional space has allowed the business to take on more projects, work it accomplishes with seven employees. One of the pair's most recent commissioned pieces is a conference table made from large wooden doors salvaged from a home in Detroit. It will be topped with glass.
Next-door sits one of the city’s newest business, the High Dive Bar, which opened in the fall. Motorists and pedestrians would recognize the place from its red shark’s head protruding from the building’s façade.
The shark is linked to the bar’s owner David Lew’s artist name, Shark Toof. Lew, a Los Angeles resident who has painted shark murals in Eastern Market, said he drove around Metro Detroit looking for a bar he could transform with Victorian décor. He chose the former Carbon Bar location on Jos. Campau.
Lew’s menu is reflective of Detroit and Hamtramck with drinks, including the Motown and the Polish Sissurp. He does make the distinction from the two cities. While visiting from Los Angeles, Lew searched for a property in more ethnically saturated areas.
“It’s an interesting dichotomy,” Lew said. “I had to research what is proper Detroit, and I love hearing all the different opinions. Hamtramck being the doughnut center and then Detroit surrounding it. And meeting people who either own businesses or work in Detroit, but choose to live in Hamtramck.
"With all the ethnicity and culture, it’s super ridiculously charming in that way.”