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Main Street merchants mobilize to build Southwest Detroit

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As a kid working at his uncle’s car wash, Tony Torres Jr. made a bold prediction.

More than once he told the man who was his family elder and boss he’d be in charge of the business one day. Having first worked at Sanchez Auto Wash on Vernor from ages 10 to 14, Torres learned the basics of customer service.

Today, at 23, he’s made good on his youthful ambitions since taking over in 2015.

Tony Torres shares a moment with daughter Anaira at his Southwest Detroit car wash.  Photo: Paul Engstrom

Tony Torres shares a moment with daughter Anaira at his Southwest Detroit car wash.
Photo: Paul Engstrom

Torres’ company benefits from Southwest Detroit’s Business Improvement District (BID), which is dedicated to improving a three-mile area – W. Vernor from Clark to Woodmere and Springwells from Vernor to I-75. Thanks to the BID, Sanchez Auto Wash enjoys special services including graffiti removal, sidewalk sweeping and increased security.

“A lot of my uncles in the neighborhood owned other businesses and I always had the ‘I want to be my own boss mentality,’” Torres says. “Then I wanted to give back to the neighborhood rather than just take from it. I wanted people to see the neighborhood as good.”

Along with three full-time employees, Torres hires students during the summer months, offering the type of early experience he gained under his uncle, Mauricio Sanchez. With help from the Southwest Detroit Business Association (SDBA), which supports the BID, Torres is making plans to expand into the area behind the car wash, adding a waiting area and vacuum units.

The BID represents 250 companies and organizations from doctors’ offices and insurance agents to restaurants and banks. There’s also a particularly high-profile profession that benefits from operating in BID’s territory along West Vernor Highway.

“Have you seen all the barber shops?” asks Theresa Zajac, SDBA vice president. “I think these guys get their hair cut twice a week! There are more barber shops than hair and nail salons.”

The BID concept originated in Canada in the 1970s when Toronto passed the legislation.

“It was a way for neighborhoods or business districts to do things the city would not normally do to help their businesses thrive,” Zajac says.

Southwest Detroit’s BID was formed about nine years ago and was the first commercial designation of its kind in Michigan. It offers advantages like increased police presence twice a week and daily during much of the holiday shopping season. The benefits, especially cleaning and graffiti removal services paid through assessments like mall tenant common fees, add significant value, says Zajac.

“We have people who say, ‘I’m taking care of my property. I don’t care about anybody else,’” she says. “If a customer comes in and sees a neighborhood that doesn’t look good, they’re not going to stop there. If they look to the left and they look to the right and it’s dirty, they’re going to keep driving.”

The SDBA wants to further promote the BID and will introduce a new website, along with neighborhood banners and a special event later this year and in 2017.

Young entrepreneurs like Torres and George Azar are among those who find the BID attractive.

George Azar presents his new restaurant Flowers of Vietnam in Southwest Detroit.

George Azar presents his new restaurant Flowers of Vietnam in Southwest Detroit.

Southwest Detroit native and chef Azar, 27, opened his restaurant Flowers of Vietnam at 4430 West Vernor earlier this year. Having worked in Las Vegas, Chicago and catering for private clients, when Azar returned to Detroit he saw no better community to set up shop.

“What we do is a designed experience,” Azar says. “Also it’s in a place that I genuinely love and believe in.”

Besides, he says, the thought of having to drive to the suburbs or anywhere outside his old neighborhood to enjoy his personal favorite cuisine was unsettling.

“Why can’t we have something that is inspired and a little different?” he asks. “It can’t just be in Corktown, Midtown, or whatever. If we want to hold our own as a city, we’ve got to be in the neighborhoods, too.”

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