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creative:impact - Revealing Milan’s historic charms

Dave Snyder
Restoring Peter Pan Bread building in Milan

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.

David Fair
89.1 WEMU
Deb Polich, President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, at the WEMU studio.


Dave Snyder
Dave Snyder
Dave Snyder

"Retired and Self-Employed. I develop and manage historic commercial buildings in my community...Milan Michigan (near Ann Arbor). At present the companies own/manage eleven storefronts and seventeen apartments. Restoration of one storefront and two apartments are planned for the coming few years."


Historic Downtown Milan

  • Downtown Milan became a Federal Historic District in 1999.
  • Most of Milan’s downtown was built in the 1890s and shortly after, though some current downtown buildings were constructed as early as 1845.
  • The historic district includes all the buildings from an Old Fire Barn on one end of downtown to an apartment building (that was constructed as a horse livery, later as an automobile dealership on the other end.
  • Like in many downtowns, some earlier generations didn’t appreciate the “historic” look of buildings and covered them with other materials in the 1930s to 1970s.  This made the downtown seem a little less authentic but more “modern.” 
  • One of the things that has been a tremendous help in our work in Milan has been historic photographs and records of the City stored by the Milan Area Historical Society, the Milan Public Library, and U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.
  • The return to a more authentic look began in the 2010s.  One entire block of buildings was declared a blighted area.  There were eight storefronts and only one was occupied.  The space on the second and third stories above was largely unused.

Renaissance of Downtown Milan

  • The City worked with a developer (me) to assemble the funding needed to renovate the buildings.  State and federal funds played an important role.  The project was financed by University Bank in Ann Arbor (after talking to 75 banks!)
  • After fourteen months of construction and $6 million dollars of construction costs, there were fifteen upscale apartments and eight modern storefronts behind the restored historic façade of the building.  (Photos of the building before and after are posted online.)
  • Those apartments have been at 100% occupancy for each of the eight years since construction.
  • In the last eight years, including those buildings, Milan has 44 storefronts and of those 44 storefronts, 27 have undergone significant improvements.
  • There are six major construction projects going on in downtown Milan as we speak.
  • (I have done three of those storefronts and four additional apartments.)

Historic Wall Advertisements

  • One of the features of downtown Milan is a collection of downtown wall ads for businesses that existed in Milan during the first half of the Twentieth Century…with a couple of those businesses lasting until the 1970s.
  • Three of the four signs were restorations of wall ads, portions of which were still visible on the buildings.
  • The first was done in 2015 at the center of downtown.  Moore & Minto had been a clothier in Milan (with other stores in SE Michigan) from early 1900’s to about 1970.  That sign was still quite visible but fading fast.  At 10 feet tall and 30 feet wide, this is the largest of the signs.  In a sunrise pattern, it says “The Home of Good Merchandise, Moore & Minto, Everything that Boys and Men Wear.”
  • The second was re-created from a photograph as part of the major construction project in 2016.  It was a business that existed about 1900-1920.  It says “Webb Blackmer, First Class Groceries and China Hall”
  • The third was done in 2019, a sign that says “Peter Pan Bread, Made by Milan Bakery.”  This is a sign on the side of the Life is Sweet Bakery, a building that has housed a bakery pretty much continuously since 1892. 
  • The most recent sign was done earlier this spring.  There were actually several wall signs in one place under a layer of gray paint.  The gray paint was removed, and one sign was brought to the fore though elements of other signs remain visible.  It says “Bassitt’s Variety 5c to $5 Store, We sell for less.”  Bassitt’s operated from about 1920 to 1970 and evolved from a variety store to a clothing store.
  • One thing I would note…with historic buildings, especially those in historic districts, it never makes sense to paint brick unless it is brick that was painted in earlier times.  We have only painted brick that was previously painted.
  • The artist for all these projects has been Mark Serra of Last Word Signs in Detroit.  He specializes in restoring historic wall ads, though his work can be seen decorating businesses throughout southeast Michigan.

Why Come to Downtown Milan

  • Variety of great shops (fabric, yarn, home décor, clothing, deep sea diving)
  • The Owl, a coffee shop/craft brewery bar, featured recently on Under the Radar Michigan
  • Life Is Sweet Bakery, consistently one of the top ranked bakeries in SE Michigan
  • The only lavender store in the region
  • Concerts every Friday night now to end of September (5-8)
  • Third Thursdays


Dave Snyder on LinkedIn

Milan Historic Preservation

Milan Area Historical Society

Milan Public Library

Bentley Historical Library

Store building sign in Milan to be restored.
Dave Snyder
Store building sign in Milan to be restored.


Deb Polich: It's time for creative:impact on 89 one WEMU. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your creative:impact host. Thanks for tuning in on Tuesdays for this WEMU segment that explores Washtenaw County's arts and creative industries and the people and businesses who help make our community a great place for all to create, live, work, learn, play and visit. We head to the southeast side of the county today to Milan to meet Dave Snyder. A historic preservation enthusiast, Dave is leading restoration and renovations throughout Milan. Let's find out what he's been up to. Dave, welcome to creative:impact.

Dave Snyder: Hi there.

Deb Polich: So glad to have you on the air. Hey, so give us a quick story about Dave Snyder. Who is he?

Dave Snyder: Well, Dave Snyder spent...well, he's had sort of an interesting career path.

Deb Polich: Don't we all?

Dave Snyder: As he left the college and worked as a Burger Chef manager for a while, I decided that I wanted to do something different than that and became a teacher for 12 years. I did that until I left teaching to start a business in the tour industry, and I was a tour operator that planned trips for school kids, and we'd do trips for about 40,000 kids.

Deb Polich: Oh my gosh! Not at one time?

Dave Snyder: From all 50 states. Sometimes, we'd have 50 or 60 trips on the road at once.

Deb Polich: Wow!

Dave Snyder: And then, I sold that business in 2008. And in the time since, I've been largely working on the architecture of downtown Milan. I'm a father. I have three kids, all adults--two daughters and a son that all live in Okemos and have their various pursuits in life as well.

Deb Polich: So, speaking of pursuits, your affection for Milan and restoring its historic properties, where does that come from?

Dave Snyder: Well, it's sort of an interesting story. I got drawn to Milan by a nephew who wanted to operate a business. And, together, we bought a bakery that was going out of business here in town. And sometime after, he started operating the bakery. He said the buildings are in foreclosure. We need a permanent home for the bakery. And so, I started talking to the city about the purchase of those buildings and eventually purchased them from the bank that had them in foreclosure. And at that point, my nephew decided that he didn't like the bakery business.

A building on E. Main Street in Milan (before restoration)
Dave Snyder
A building on E. Main Street in Milan (before restoration)

Deb Polich: But you still had the buildings?

Dave Snyder: But I had the buildings! And eventually, we put together the financing with the help from the state of Michigan and the federal government and University Bank in Ann Arbor. And they all came together to help make a $6 million renovation to a block of buildings that had been declared blight in the city. And that construction project started in 2015 and finished in 2016.

A building on E. Main Street in Milan (after restoration)
Dave Snyder
A building on E. Main Street in Milan (after restoration)

Deb Polich: So, buying buildings and restoring them and preserving them are two different things. You could buy a building and just renovate them and make them very modern. Why preserve them?

Dave Snyder: Well, for one thing, there are financial incentives to do that. The government provides tax credits for that. But it's an important part of the authenticity of a community. And I think that in the 1930s, the 1970s, there was a real move in a lot of downtowns to cover up those historic buildings and make them look modern. And what people discovered over time was that they were just taking away the authenticity of those downtowns and that it was actually uncovering those buildings and in making them look like they were originally intended to look that created this space that everybody cherished. During that same timeframe, big box stores and big shopping malls became a thing. And now, as we create local spaces that have the look and feel of what that downtown did 125 years ago, we're creating spaces in our town and in a lot of other towns across America that people want to come to because they're appealing spaces.

Rear of a building on E. Main Street in Milan (before restoration)
Dave Snyder
Rear of a building on E. Main Street in Milan (before restoration)

Deb Polich: Right. It's those buildings that, at one point, were old and unappealing become, you know, nostalgic and worth preserving. I think you've found that. This is 89 one WEMU creative:impact. And I'm Deb Polich, and my guest is Dave Snyder, the man credited with restoring the historic charm of Milan. So, hey. I want to move on to something a little bit more specific about your efforts. Unlike the murals that seem to be ubiquitous and beautification projects in communities everywhere, you are restoring the original images on these Milan buildings. Why that instead of, you know, something brand new and covering them for something pretty--or not pretty, I shouldn't say--but something that's been designed by somebody else?

Rear of a building on E. Main Street in Milan (after restoration)
Dave Snyder
Rear of a building on E. Main Street in Milan (after restoration)

Dave Snyder: Well, you know, there are people that worked in these communities a hundred years ago, and they were doing things. And I think that we need to honor what was going on 100 years ago that built this town to the special place that it was then. There was a lot happening in Milan and in a lot of other communities around us in the 1890s and the early 1900s. Most of our buildings were built during that time. And in those first 20 or 30 years of existence, most of those buildings were used by businesses. Many of those buildings were used by businesses that stayed in those those spaces for 50, 75, 100 years. And we need to honor that. And one of the things that we found on these buildings was that there were historic wall ads that were fading from the sides of those buildings. And we wanted to restore those signs, so that what people were doing in 1920 and Milan is honored. So, the first of those times that we did was a clothing store that had been here probably starting about around 1900 and lasted until about 1970. It was called Moore and Minto. And they not only had a store in Milan, but they serviced other stores throughout southeastern Michigan. And we restored a sign that said, "The home of good merchandise. Moore and Minto. Everything that boys and men wear." It's ten feet by 30 feet. It's a huge sign in the center of downtown Milan.

Moore and Minto building sign in Milan.
Dave Snyder
Moore and Minto building sign in Milan.

Deb Polich: And did you use historic evidence, you know, like images from newspapers and stuff like that to find that and the other signs that you've done?

Dave Snyder: Yeah. So, we found that, first of all, what's on the walls tells you a lot. It tells you about colors sometimes, the dimensions of the sign, that sort of thing. But there were also photos. We found that the Milan Area Historical Society, the Milan Public Library, the Bentley Historical Library, which has several volumes of photos of Milan, all of those were invaluable in recreating these signs.

Deb Polich: So, it requires quite a bit of research. So, listen. We've just got a minute or so left. But tell me how has the mailing community and visitors for that matter responded to your work? What does it mean to the town?

Toy store building in Milan to be restored.
Dave Snyder
Toy store building in Milan to be restored.

Dave Snyder: Well, the town is revitalized in a way that I don't think anybody really expected ten years ago. It was a pretty tired, unwelcoming downtown. And now, there are great shops here and a lot of activities in the downtown. And you can come down here on any night of the week, and you'll see people walking the streets of Milan because it's an appealing place to be. And the community has been very welcoming of these changes.

Deb Polich: Well, listen, bravo to you for reconnecting Milan to its roots and making such a difference in your community. Thanks for being on the show, too.

Dave Snyder: My pleasure.

Bassitt's Variety Store sign in Milan.
Dave Snyder
Bassitt's Variety Store sign in Milan.

Deb Polich: That's Dave Snyder, who is restoring historic properties and bringing renewed energy and life to Milan, Michigan. Find out more about Dave and see photos of what he's been doing at WEMU dot org. You've been listening to creative:impact. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host. Mat Hopson is our producer. We invite you to join us every Tuesday to meet the people who make Washtenaw creative. This is 89 one WEMU Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University.

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Contact WEMU News at734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org

Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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