By Lisa Cipriano
There is a whole lot of business packed in the 4.73 square miles of Birmingham. The relatively small Oakland County city, with a small town feel, is home to 300 retailers. In fact, it boasts about 1.5 million-square-feet of retail commercial space and 2.2 million-square-feet of office space in its downtown area alone.
“I don’t think a lot of people realize how much commercial activity we have going on,” said Birmingham Mayor Mark Nickita. “We’re almost fully occupied.”
The proud mayor thinks it speaks volumes about his little city. “I think that alone says that we’re business friendly enough for all businesses,” Nickita said. “And, I think that we’ve been helpful as a city to allow them to thrive in the way that they individually are able to.”
What makes Birmingham different from other local business hubs is that it’s pedestrian friendly, which allows businesses to benefit from each other. In fact, the city was named the fifth most successful walkable suburb in the U.S. by the Wall Street Journal in 2010.
“You can walk to lunch, walk to go see a movie, go buy a pair of shoes and then walk to other businesses,” explained Nickita. “We are very pedestrian orientated and try to make it as walkable as possible. We try to make it as comfortable as possible for people to make their way around without a car by adding a number of crosswalks and sidewalks.”
Birmingham’s businesses are housed in a mixture of historic buildings, modern retail and office developments. Architect Victor Saroki is not only a Birmingham business owner, but he’s a big part of creating the retail and office space that’s helped keep business booming in Birmingham.
Over the past 33 years, Saroki Architecture has done more than 70 buildings in Birmingham, in addition to custom homes in the city. “We’ve done the Townsend Hotel, the Birmingham Theatre, the District Lofts, the Willitz, which is a mixed use condominium development, and our own office building in Birmingham just to name a few,” added Saroki.
Saroki says he was always interested in urban development, and chose to set-up shop in Birmingham over much bigger cities like Detroit and Chicago. “It’s a great community to do that,” Saroki said. “It’s very balanced with entertainment and shopping. It’s upscale, walkable and we’ve got a lot of mixed-use buildings where people live right downtown. It was the perfect choice.”
Saroki says the range of people who live, work and play in Birmingham are a huge asset. “We have business owners. We have developers, homeowners and we have a phenomenal base of relationships,” he said. “I call them the who’s who of southeast Michigan. They bring a lot to the table.”
Saroki also attributes his personal success in Birmingham to the ease of working with the city’s government. “They are pro-business and totally business friendly,” Saroki added. “They get it and strive hard to find the appropriate balance for their business owners and residents.”
Attorney Randall Denha is an another example of a business owner who was able to spread his wings and thrive in Birmingham. He began his career as a partner at a large firm in Troy. When he went out on his own in 2010, he began by leasing office space in Birmingham. Denha quickly made the city his law firm’s permanent home. He found his own building and developed it to suit his needs. He eventually built a development on Merrill St. that Denha & Associates PLLC and various other companies occupy today.
Denha chose Birmingham because it’s centrally located and near his client base. He also wanted to be somewhere where he, personally, could enjoy a good work/life balance in a walkable community with great parks. “I don’t need to get in my car to go shop and dine and everything else,” explained Denha.
What he didn’t realize was how much his clients would enjoy Birmingham, too. “They want to come to Birmingham,” Denha said. “No longer do they want me to go to them. They are asking to come to the office. Birmingham sells itself.”
Denha agrees with Saroki that the city’s government is very conducive to the success of its businesses, by giving them more bang for their buck. “They advertise for you,” noted Denha. “Between the local chamber of commerce and business magazines, they’re circulating enough exposure for you to where you feel wanted and welcomed.”