Saline Mayor Gretchen Driskell jokes that she has a new slogan for her downtown: “We welcome loitering.” With the economy showing some signs of improvement, Saline, Chelsea, and Dexter’s struggling downtowns are positioning themselves to lure visitors. Using new marketing tactics, the arts, and old-fashioned small-town charm, they want to be destinations for individuals and prospective businesses. But plenty of challenges remain.

Plenty of retail casualties have littered the downtown landscapes in recent years. Just in recent months, a premier bike shop in Saline, a much-praised restaurant in Dexter, and an art gallery and a longtime independent bookstore in Chelsea have closed. But business owners soldier on, and in some cases new entrepreneurs have stepped forward to fill the holes. With competition from big-box stores, malls, national franchises, and Internet shopping, downtown merchants must often reinvent themselves or band together to market to customers old and new. In this effort, their historic settings and the uniqueness of their businesses are key advantages.

In Saline, busy Michigan Avenue is a deterrent to loitering, and Driskell knows it. She’s working with the city’s Business Development Association to create “pocket parks,” small areas behind downtown shops that will offer benches and tables to encourage customers to linger. And Saline’s arts and culture committee is partnering with artists to create downtown art that doubles as functional furniture. The BDA is developing ideas for a pavilion to house more downtown events in the future.

Saline’s new website and professional branding campaign–“Be. Saline.”–was launched last year, and Driskell says it’s a good start–the website has about a thousand monthly visitors. But there’s more reaching to do outside “the center of the doughnut,” as Saline Area Chamber of Commerce director Larry Osterling calls it. The city of Saline has a population of around 9,000, and the doughnut itself includes five surrounding townships with a total population of 60,000.

“A vibrant downtown is critical,” Osterling says. “It’s the whirlpool effect–if you have movement at the center, it affects everything around it.”

John Olsen, director of the Saline Downtown Merchants Association, says the group is helping by “trying to make any downtown event even bigger.” Olsen, who owns Spotted Dog Winery with his wife, Jill, hosted a wine tasting with Pineapple House across the street when owner Joy Ely unveiled her latest collection of Vera Bradley handbags. The merchants sponsor semiannual Ladies’ Nights Out–similar to events in Chelsea–and support Saline’s Summer Music Series. Chelsea has Sounds & Sights on Thursday Nights, and Dexter has long had a Summer Concert Series. All bring in bands for weekly free outdoor concerts that also attract potential customers to downtown merchants.

At the Resale Boutique across Michigan Avenue from the Spotted Dog, owner Jamie Westcott says fast-moving Michigan Avenue and the new Walmart that moved in on the outskirts of town are largely positives for her. She says she moved her store to Saline from Chelsea specifically to capitalize on traffic from Michigan Avenue and says it has paid off with increased sales. She asks everyone who visits her store what brings them to town–and while she says many women say downtown Saline is a meeting point or destination for them, other customers mention Walmart.

In downtown Chelsea, customers at the hundred-year-old Vogel’s and Foster’s clothing store have a completely different experience than a Walmart shopper.

“We’re still providing the beautiful historic features,” says owner Mike Jackson, describing the old bubble fountain, creaky wooden floors, and antique fixtures. “But like any store, to succeed we have to change as the community changes.” And he admits “not everything’s been rosy” in the downtown business environment.

Jackson, who also serves as president of the Chelsea Area Chamber of Commerce and DDA, has owned the store for sixteen years and has hired a marketing firm to help him reinvent the store. He’s dramatically changing the products he carries based on focus groups and research. And he is part of a tight-knit group of downtown merchants who meet regularly to plan events and brainstorm ways to stay competitive.

A coordinated marketing effort is under way, too. In May, the city of Chelsea hired its first marketing director with equal funds from the city and the DDA. Chamber executive director Bob Pierce says Chelsea is widening its marketing efforts to “think regionally”–to a 100-mile radius and beyond. Chelsea’s working with neighboring Manchester, Dexter, and Grass Lake in an initiative to market to the nearly one million annual visitors to the Waterloo and Pinckney state recreation areas and Michigan International Speedway.

“We’re blessed with great diversity downtown in our restaurants, retail, theater, and industry,” says Chelsea mayor Jason Lindauer. Jeff Daniels’ Purple Rose Theatre–as well as Craig Common’s Common Grill–are what Pierce calls “downtown’s magnets.” In March, National Endowment for the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman visited Chelsea as part of a six-month national Art Works tour and called the city a “poster child” for how arts can drive an economy.

Dexter may not be drawing the attention Chelsea is, but its downtown is using the same theater experience as its neighbor–on a smaller scale–to reinvent itself. When Encore Musical Theatre Company opened a year ago, it promised to help a growing downtown dining scene that featured newly reinvented Terry B’s and the brand new upscale dining places North Point Seafood and Steakhouse and Bistro Renaissance.

North Point’s Mark Perry says having Encore downtown gives his business a needed boost during tough times. He collaborates with the theater, hosting opening night and closing night parties, and running lunch matinee specials. Adding an outdoor patio and offering live music on Thursday nights also draws people.

But last month, Bistro Renaissance closed after almost three years in business, and its website posted a letter citing economic reasons. Village president Shawn Keough says even in times of prosperity some turnover is expected. He says it was a well-loved restaurant that stayed busy on weekend nights but wasn’t busy enough during the week. “Now this gives another business an opportunity,” he says. “And we already have a restaurant looking into the space.”

Paul Cousins, a village council member who chairs Dexter’s arts, culture, and heritage committee, says the new downtown attractions are bringing in people from Ann Arbor and other areas. He wants downtown to develop its arts scene and is getting support from the county’s Arts Alliance five-year plan, which encourages entrepreneurship in the arts.

Artistica, a downtown Dexter art gallery that features local artists, opened two years ago. Partner Lisa Wanders says the gallery is “hanging in there.” One of Chelsea’s two downtown art galleries–Chelsea Gallery–succumbed to the recession at the end of last year, but River Gallery is still open. In Saline, the nonprofit Two Twelve Arts Center offers classes, sponsors community art projects, and features an artist of the month.

But Dexter lacks the coordinated downtown marketing efforts of Chelsea and Saline. “It’s hard to revitalize what you don’t know,” says Keough. So a year ago the village government drafted an economic preparedness plan and worked with a consultant to interview local businesses to find out who they are and what they require to succeed. Now Keough says the village council, local chamber, DDA, and school system are working together to become a stronger marketing arm for downtown and Dexter as a whole.

As malls and superstores have joined the retail landscape, downtown leaders have had to adjust. Chelsea’s Pierce sees the strip malls off I-94 at the M-52 exit as a clean, inviting gateway to downtown. The stores there carry national brands but have mostly local people running them. Some establishments, including Dayspring Gifts–a Hallmark store–have migrated to the south side from downtown. “It’s been a good move to be close to the expressway, and the parking is more accessible–especially for our customers who use wheelchairs,” says Dayspring manager Sandy Gasiewski.

Kevin Frahm, who runs Main Street’s Mission Marketplace, thinks the “Opie factor” of Chelsea’s old-fashioned downtown will always appeal to certain shoppers who like historic buildings and easy walking routes. Plus, he says, Chelsea’s downtown still offers “things you need every day”: a library, grocery and hardware stores, coffee shops, and services from dentists to attorneys.

The chairman of Dexter’s Downtown Development Authority, Dan O’Haver, also owns Hackney Ace Hardware and–with his wife, Abby–Christine’s gift shop downtown. He admits it hurt when in 2007 Busch’s grocery store moved out to a new spot among the strip malls east of downtown. “Of course it made economic sense for them to build out in a cornfield, but it has hurt our traffic into downtown,” he says.

So the Dexter DDA has persisted with major downtown initiatives that began with the streetscape improvements of the mid-1990s that made the downtown pedestrian friendly.

In 2005, a DDA development plan turned a dirt lot into the Monument Park building, which houses North Point restaurant. And the Mill Creek Park project is a long-term, potentially multiphase downtown plan.

In 2008, the road commission took out the creek’s dam, and the next year the Main Street bridge was completed, creating what Keough calls “a gateway to the west” from downtown. Now, a $450,000 grant from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund will help the village develop four to five acres of parkland along the downtown riverfront, including building pathways, interpretive signage, and an amphitheater.

A developer has plans to create Mill Creek Terrace, a mixed-use three-story downtown building with loft condos, office space, and retail overlooking Mill Creek Park. The developer is looking for tenants, and the gravel lot awaits construction. Plans to modernize old industrial buildings, including the old DAPCO factory site, are on the table as well. The DDA will own the property in 2012, and redevelopment could begin then. O’Haver says he envisions a downtown technology campus, but there are no specific plans yet.

“The belief in our community is that the entrepreneurs of tomorrow are looking for places to work where they also want to live,” says Keough. “We’ve got kayakers and bicyclists that are making their way to our downtown.”

In Chelsea, Lindauer says major projects, such as filling the Clocktower development, should be approached from a long-term perspective. One-half of the Clocktower Building offices are vacant.

The Chelsea Livery, a cinder block building from 1905 that the Chelsea DDA purchased two years ago–situated between the Clocktower and downtown storefronts–could bridge a gap in the downtown business district. The DDA is filing requests for proposals from potential tenants and has at least one interested investor.

In Saline, major streetscape developments are on hold because of lack of state funding, but there’s movement in individual storefronts. The long-vacant Kelly’s and Saline Cafe restaurant space is being renovated into a new eatery. A manufacturing company is moving into the R & B Machine Tool building–and bringing twenty-five to thirty employees downtown–and perhaps twice that number eventually. And developer Bill Kinley, president of Phoenix Contractors, who owns three buildings in downtown Saline that house a mix of retail and restaurants, says he hasn’t lost a single tenant during the recession. Yet, down the street, a massive vacant lot is an undeveloped eyesore.

While some projects and businesses stall downtown, others have stood the test of time. In Chelsea, one of those is Winans Jewelry, a century-old business on Main Street. As a high school and college student, Marie Krause worked there. Then she worked outside Chelsea for three decades–until she lost her job a couple years ago. When shop owner Rob Winans heard of her misfortune, he invited her back to work at the family’s store.

Krause says working in the historic building again under the old tin ceiling is like coming full circle: “Our downtown is the heart of the community and it feels so good to be back.”

Laura Blodgett contributed to this article.