Rockin' downtown

Aug 4, 1999 at 12:00 am

"They say that when a person is walking past a store window, you only have eight seconds to grab that person’s attention," says Bethany Bain-Chamberlain, Ferndale’s downtown development director.

As fast as an eye-catching window display, the hook in a pop song, or a scene in a movie trailer, Bain-Chamberlain – with her striking looks and forceful personality – grabs for attention. In less than a year on the job, Bain-Chamberlain has succeeded where others have failed at luring independent, offbeat and creative businesses and restaurants into downtown Ferndale. Now, the 28-year-old former entertainment publicist is set on pulling shoppers to a revived Nine Mile Road commercial strip.


At City Hall on East Nine Mile Road, her white-blonde, stylishly sprayed hair sets her apart, making her look more like a model, or perhaps a rock star.

Her personality is equally striking. Bain-Chamberlain landed her current job last October after reading about the opening in a newspaper. She called information, then phoned Ferndale City Manager Tom Barwin at home. Two hours after an interview with Barwin and others on a city panel, she had the job.

"They said, ‘Well, do you have any experience writing agendas or compiling minutes or interpreting ordinances?’ And I said ‘No, but I believe it’s within my capacity to understand and learn how to do that.’"

Barwin admits it was risky hiring a creative type for a city job. On the other hand, he says, "We’ve consciously sought to shake things up, bring in some creative energy. … Economic development isn’t supposed to be done in a fishbowl."

Bain-Chamberlain has worked in hair and nail salons and in nightclubs. She also worked briefly as an editorial assistant for the Detroit Free Press, and freelanced for the newspaper. In 1995, after graduating cum laude from St. Mary’s College in Orchard Lake with a major in English and a minor in theology, she contemplated the ministry.

"Then I married an atheist, and he put the kibosh on that," she says, speaking of her graphic designer husband, Adrian.

More recently, Bain-Chamberlain was public relations director for more than two years at the Magic Bag, the popular Ferndale entertainment venue.

Says Barwin, "She’s learned to adapt quickly and she’s doing a very good job."

Show business

Most vendors in today’s Ferndale aren’t selling what people need, Bain-Chamberlain says matter-of-factly. Department stores are more convenient for needs.

What Ferndale and other downtowns need to sell is an experience, she says. "You’ve been to … Great Lakes Crossing mall. It’s an all-encompassing experience – sensory, tactile, smells, sounds, lights. I mean, your brain is firing many neurons at the same time just to go shopping nowadays."

Bain-Chamberlain says Ferndale will eventually have a more neuron-stimulating, art deco-style downtown. Last year’s improvements to West Nine Mile Road included on-street parking with new lighting and landscaping. More recently, banners and hanging flower pots have adorned light posts along the strip. Still to come are upgraded, inviting facades on businesses.

In recent months, vacant storefronts on West Nine Mile Road have been snapped up for new and soon-to-open businesses. Shop owners and city officials credit Bain-Chamberlain with actively recruiting retailers, including Cinderella’s Attic, Record Time and the gourmet food store Lagniappe. With her help, the city of 25,000 appears to be entering a renaissance.

"I consider this particular section of Nine Mile that I’m focusing on right now to be a stage that I’m helping to set," she says. "I hope to see Ferndale eventually become kind of a destination … where people will want to come and spend the day, spend their money, spend their time with their friends and family ... in such a way that it’s an experience they want to repeat."

Setting the stage

An example of Bain-Chamberlain’s independence: She left Lahser High School in Bloomfield Hills at 16, got a manicuring license, and did nails while she earned her diploma at night. She takes issue with a recent newspaper article that described her as a "former high school dropout."

"I chose to find a night school and graduate early," she says. "I wanted to do my own thing. I wanted to choose my own friends. I didn’t want to exist in an environment that I thought was spiritually, emotionally and intellectually restrictive."

Show business always fascinated her. She says her mother used to take her backstage at the Fisher Theatre while she was a little girl, and Rock Hudson told her she might have a future as a movie star.

"That really blew my mind," she says.

Between the ages of 12 and 18, she did local television commercials and some modeling for department stores. In her early 20s, she worked for the now-closed Pontiac nightclub Industry, where she ran errands for tour managers.

"I’d make a little pocket cash and get tickets for my friends. Always waiting for that big break."

Eventually, though, she decided she might not have the talent to be a performer. But she still wanted to be part of the scene, "part of the magic of making it happen."

After college, she went to work on Steven Milgrom, the original owner of the Magic Bag.

"I badgered him until he hired me," she says, admitting she called two or three times a week for a month.

And it’s a short leap from promoting a Ferndale entertainment center to promoting Ferndale itself.

"It’s the same kind of rush I get when I walk into a sold-out event and everybody stands up, and so does the hair on the back of my neck," she says.


Bain-Chamberlain fits a growing emphasis on promotions in downtown development.

"We compete with the malls. We compete with catalogs. And now, we have the Internet shoppers," says Judy Downey, chairperson of the Michigan Downtown and Financing Association, and Farmington’s downtown development director. With ever-increasing competition, promotional flair is at a premium.

For instance, Traverse City DDA Executive Director Bryan Crough, whose background is in theater as well as city administration, is often credited with fostering a comeback through downtown entertainment events.

Lately, Bain-Chamberlain has been preparing for her first big Ferndale event: The Nine Mile Music Fest is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 7 to coincide with the 7th Annual Ferndale Art Fair. With popular local artists such as Susan Calloway and Jill Jack, the idea is to draw people to the revitalized business district; merchants and restaurateurs plan to have sidewalk sales, demonstrations and free food samples.

Bain-Chamberlain expects to be watching from backstage, being, as she puts it, "part of the magic."