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June 4, 2013

A look back at the first Cruisin’ Gratiot

By Sara Kandel
C & G Staff Writer

Long before its 15th year, Cruisin’ Gratiot became a staple event for the metro Detroit area, bringing more than 100,000 people to Eastpointe each year, but had it not been for a few strokes of luck and the faith of one resident, it might not have ever had a chance to start.

Now planned a year in advance, the first cruise was planned in fewer than six months. The year was 1999 and Eastpointe resident Carol Corrie had an idea that would change the city for years to come.

She wasn’t a fan of classic cars, but after visiting the Woodward Dream Cruise the summer before, she couldn’t help but notice similarities to Gratiot Avenue.

“When Woodward had its first cruise, I said, ‘We could have a cruise; they don’t even cruise Woodward anymore, but there are still people cruising Gratiot. We could do this.’ But everyone said, ‘You’re nuts. It’s never going to happen,’” Corrie said. “Honestly, they said, ‘They’ll never let you do this.’”

Corrie set the idea aside and focused on more pressing matters. A long-time employee of Cloverleaf, Corrie was asked by the city to plan and cater a party welcoming home astronaut Jerry Linenger.

The party was a huge hit.

“It kind of knocked their socks off,” Corrie said. “I had moons hanging from the ceiling and decorated the restaurant to look like space.”

Not long after the event, the Chamber of Commerce approached Corrie. They wanted her to join the chamber and sit on the event planning committee. It wasn’t something she was really interested in, but she couldn’t say no so easily.

For months, her boss had been urging her to join the chamber and network on behalf of the restaurant.

“I was never a networking kind of person. I was always more of a hands-on, in-the-business person,” Corrie explained. “She said, ‘Please Carol, do this for me,’ so I made a deal with her.”

Carol agreed to join on one condition — she would attend one of the event committee’s meetings and at that meeting she would propose a cruise. If they agreed to it, she’d stay and join the chamber. If they didn’t, she’d walk out and the subject would be over.

“I went to the first meeting and they are talking about events they want to do, and I said, ‘Well, I have an event and I think it could be very successful,’” she said.

Corrie told them her idea and, for a minute, no one said anything.

“Then they said, ‘A car cruise? A car cruise — we like it!’ and I thought, ‘OK, I guess I’m in the chamber,’” Corrie said.

Corrie was put in charge of the project, but she didn’t know anything about classic cars or cruises. Someone at the chamber did, though — local business owner Jim Wynn.

Wynn was known around town for restoring classic cars. He had a restoration garage and he helped restore the Eastpointe fire engine.

“It was Jim Wynn who set the date for the event,” Corrie said. “Because Jim Wynn knew all the car functions and he said, ‘This is the day you have to have it — the day before Father’s Day — every year. It will be the first classic car cruise of the year.’ So he set the date and we’ve kept it ever since.”

Despite having the support of the Chamber and the expertise of Wynn, she says most residents and businesses in the community still doubted her.

“They all said there is no way I would get council to approve it, but I had to see what would happen, so I talked to each of them individually and then I went before council,” she said.

Harvey Curley, who now sits on the cruise committee, was the mayor at the time.

“I remember that night very vividly — the day Carol came before the council,” Curly said. “She said, ‘We have a dream, and this is our dream: not a dream cruise, but a cruise here in Eastpointe’ that would bring people into the businesses — you know she was a business person at Cloverleaf — and she said it would also enhance the city, and we said yes.”

Council advised Corrie to meet with the police chief — they told her that if she could get the chief’s support, they’d support it, too.

Well, Corrie got the chief’s support and, before long, word traveled to the DDA about her pet project of bringing a cruise to Eastpointe. Together, Corrie, the police chief, the DDA director and Wynn went before the Michigan Department of Transportation with a plan for a lane closure, and MDOT accepted it.

“To this day, everyone asks us how we got MDOT approval for a lane closure — Woodward, everyone has asked us — but we don’t really know. We submitted the plan and they approved it, and we are the only ones that have that. MDOT is still not handing them out,” Corrie said.

By the time they received MDOT approval and went back before the council for final approval, it was mid-spring and they had only a few months to finish planning the big event. There wasn’t time to advertise. They still had to plan for portable restrooms, cleanup, refreshment stations and more.

And they didn’t just have to tie up the loose ends; they had to figure out a way to pay for them. The Chamber just couldn’t afford it.

“It was done through the chamber, but they didn’t have enough money to pay for it, so Cloverleaf gave us their credit card to help get the cruise going,” Corrie said.

Despite the lack of advertisement, the cruise was a huge success, bringing more than 24,000 people to the city and raising enough money to pay back Cloverleaf, cover their expenses, donate to charity and put some away for the following year’s cruise.

“When people ask me what mistakes we made with the cruise when we first started, I tell them we didn’t make any mistakes, but we do keep making it better every year,” Curley said.

“It was by the grace of God and the luck of having strong people around me to help me that I was even able to do this,” Corrie said.

It was more than luck; it was Corrie’s drive and intuition that led to the event that has literally put Eastpointe on the map.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Sara Kandel at skandel@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1030.