During the past 10 years, the city of Rochester gained 2,244 residents.
It's a statistic released last week by the , an achievement celebrated by city leaders. Depending on how you look at it, Rochester may be considered the fastest-growing city or the third-fastest-growing municipality in Oakland County.
But the census doesn't count the sheep.
They came in 2001, more than three dozen colorful fiberglass sheep scattered around town as part of the Ewe Review, a public art project that leaders look back on as one of downtown's greatest success stories.
Since then, those sheep have mostly vanished. Some live in collectors' homes; a few can be seen in the lobbies of local businesses.
But now, leaders of Rochester's downtown area are counting on a new set of sheep to help it through a historic hurdle. In 2012, Main Street will be closed for the summer as the four-lane road is taken apart and put back together again.
It will be a challenge for downtown businesses and residents alike.
Which is why the sheep are coming back.
Or, shall we say, baa-aa-aa-aack.
Preparing for a 'Main Street Makeover'
Rochester grew nearly 22 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to census figures. In a county that grew 0.7 percent and in a state that lost 0.5 percent, it's a figure to be celebrated.
City leaders quickly reacted to the data, indicating they would use it to show expanding businesses that Rochester is on the move and that locating in the city is a sound business decision.
“Our formula for success has been very straightforward: Deliver high-quality local services at an affordable price; encourage an open and level playing field for businesses to thrive; and build on the strong historical assets and sense of place that people feel in Rochester," Mayor Jeffrey Cuthbertson said.
In downtown Rochester, only 3 percent of retail buildings are vacant. This is a downtown that has been applauded in the county, recently receiving awards from Main Street Oakland County for the Outstanding Fundraising Project (the Big, Bright Light Ball) and Outstanding Downtown Investment (the 415-417 building).
These successes are part of why downtown leaders have been working tirelessly, a year before what they are calling the "Main Street Makeover," to make sure they keep up.
"March is normally the time we start recruiting new businesses, but this year, our efforts are focused on retaining them," said Kristi Trevarrow, the Downtown Development Authority Executive.
The $4 million reconstruction project will last from March through September next year; Main Street will be closed from University to Second streets.
The project is a necessary repair to the deterioration of Main Street caused by truck traffic. According to the Michigan Department of Transportation, problems with underlying bricks shifting during the heavy truck traffic are causing rutting, which pools water during rainstorms and causes ice during the winter.
When the project is finished, it will include energy-efficient streetscape lighting, stamped concrete crosswalks, planters, benches and trees.
So the city is looking at ways to combat the loss of traffic that will bring people downtown. Leaders are fixing up back alleyways and helping businesses make their back entrances more inviting.
And then there's the sheep.
Ewe Review, Part Two
The Ewe Review 2 will come to town next summer. Like its predecessor, it pays homage to the city's heritage as a hub for wool processing.
"We really don't like to recycle ideas; we like to think we're pretty innovative," Trevarrow said.
But when it first came to town, they saw a 25 percent increase in business, she said. People were coming downtown to admire and get their photos taken with the sheep.
"It's recognizable, and it's fun. It involves bringing art into the community. And, most importantly, it will draw people downtown," Trevarrow said.
The Ewe Review 2 will have a Hollywood theme; right now, downtown leaders are brainstorming ideas ("Frankly my dear, I don't give a ram," is one of many sheep-infused film quotes on a list hanging in the DDA office).
Trevarrow is not sure how many sheep will be part of next year's show; a call for artists will go out in the fall.
'This generation's thumbprint'
All sheep aside, when next year's makeover happens, downtown leaders across the state — and country — will be watching.
Jay Schlinsog is owner and manager of Downtown Professionals Network, a planning and research firm that works with Oakland County Main Street and Michigan Main Street. He helps prepare downtowns for construction projects such as the one coming to Rochester.
"The No. 1 thing the town needs to do is to stay in the information loop," said Schlinsog, who is based in Batavia, IL. He helped the city of St. Charles, IL, through a reconstruction project that demolished 20 downtown blocks in 1997; during that time, some businesses there actually saw an increase in business.
"The greatest challenge and fear businesses have is not knowing what will happen when," Schlinsog said. "They need to stay plugged in; they need to know when they will be without a sidewalk, for instance."
He has consulted with the Rochester DDA and said he is impressed with its marketing and communication system, to get the word out about businesses.
"It will be a great way to tell people that the downtown is always open for business, and while it may be inconvenient, you will still be able to get to the business, and the business will treat you well while you're there," Schlinsog said.
"What is happening in downtown Rochester will put a face on Rochester for 30 to 40 years," he said. "It will put this generation's thumbprint on the town."