A Tale of Two Cities…or Why Every Survival Story Counts

There are two ways to tell this story: One is about an impressive Pontiac company hoping to revive a depressed city. The other is to report how grim Oakland County’s central hub has become.

Sorry to say it, but Detroit isn’t the only city in Metro Detroit that people abandoned. Nostalgia, and a field trip to visit the offices of a company called pushtwentytwo, led me to revisit Pontiac. And the state of the city was a grim surprise.

Gone are the eclectic art galleries, specialty stores, fine eateries and many of the other fine things worth visiting in this downtown. There are still some night clubs, music venues and (egad) a huge haunted house that formerly held a Guinness World’s Record. But any charm that used to existe has been wiped out by economic mistakes, political stumbles, the short-term hit from the lost summer event (Arts, Beats and Eats) as well as long-term effects of a once-shuttered football stadium and a host of other causes.

As I walked around the central business district a few weeks ago, I marveled at what had become of my former stomping grounds. What happened to the boosters trying to develop an artist colony here? Where did the devoted shop keeps disappear to when their clientele dropped off to nothing? When did people stop caring about what happened to Pontiac?

I have to wonder…Is this what will happen to the little portions of life in Detroit if we have a few more years of financial depression? What if the Toyras, Claires, Phils and others just can’t cut it anymore? What if the momentum of the moment, spurred by articles in the WSJ, NYT and WSJ, isn’t sustainable? There’s not enough gray in Michigan’s winter skyline to paint that picture, so I have to walk away from the potential horror show.

The Hub’s photographer, Kenny, documented our visit that day. He met Chris Russell, who has lived in Pontiac for 18 years. Russell’s two cents? To have a future – to have something for his granddaughter, Kayla, to hold onto – the city needs a rewind button of sorts.

“In order to revive Pontiac, we need to bring back GM’s truck plant and Arts, Beats and Eats,” Russell said.

Thankfully, there are people (and companies) who haven’t left. There are companies that stick around. Meet pushtwentytwo, a full-service marketing company that has been in Pontiac for nearly a decade now. And they are holding down the fort relatively by themselves. They are keeping the city viable, something it desperately needs as it celebrates its 150th birthday.

Founded by David Sarris and Michael Verville, pushtwentytwo employs 15 creative and account professionals, many under the age of 40. Since 2004, pushtwentytwo has establish its clients as leaders in their respective industries through its marketing communications. The firm, Verville told me, is aimed at successfully growing its business and working to put Pontiac back on the corporate map.

“Pontiac is a large part of Detroit’s fabric,” Verville said. “It’s no secret that the city has had its struggles, we chose to build our business here to make an impact; bring in young, vibrant professionals and high-profile executives, which we hope will ultimately become part of the city’s revival.”

Verville, like many of us that have worked in Pontiac, has studied what the city used to be. Old photographs show its former beauty…This was the center of the universe practically. Walk down Saginaw or Huron streets, and you walked among local royalty. This was a central, booming town.

The arts movement that took hold during the late 1990s was a great idea on the surface, he and I agreed. But it didn’t work; it apparently wasn’t a true foundation. And its failure sapped people’s energy, he said. The city itself doesn’t have any money (it barely has a functioning government or police force). But the business community that is left is doing what it can to keep the downtown going. They want the downtown to be a center of commerce for the whole area – Oakland County and beyond.

Pushtwentytwo originally chose Pontiac because of its central location. It is geographically attractive and it is close to every other business the firm needed. Plus, from the business side, having a relatively urban setting is a great way to draw new employees and clients.

“We like our surroundings to reflect who we are,” Verville said. “We’re a business that’s competing against many larger agencies for young, creative talent. And they don’t want to sit in a big office complex in a sea of office buildings.

“We always felt Pontiac was a city with a lot of potential,” he continued. “Unless you’re an insider, you might not be aware of the companies here. There are photographers, recording studios and artist studios still here. Young people are familiar with the city; they know what’s going on here. There is an infrastructure of creative talent – designers, web designers, sound and video studios – and we want to be close to those kind of people.”

Like Detroit, Pontiac faces perception issues of all kinds. But here is a company that’s successful, gaining new clients and hiring. Pushtwentytwo is trying to show that Pontiac is a great place to start and operate a business. I’d like to come back in another year and see whether anything has changed – maybe a new creative firm, design center or event a storefront to join the pawn shop, Crofoot and the haunted house.

Anything could happen.

Photo credit: Karpov the Wrecked Train

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