Dean Barber

Detroit vs. Everybody: Mending the Fabric of a City

In Places on August 25, 2013 at 8:48 am

DETROIT – The city’s flag says it all: Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus: We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.

In a fast-paced two-day tour of this city, I saw the ashes and I saw the rising, and I left here torn, confused and yet inspired. I still am to some degree.

I saw things that I should never have seen in the richest country in the world (although I asked to see them). And then I saw some things that had me convinced that this city has the bones and the brains to reclaim greatness and that it will surely happen.

This is not an easy blog to write.

Photographing a Ghost

Three weeks after the Michigan Central Rail Depot opened here in 1913, Henry Ford announced the $5 workday, leading this city to become the richest city in America.

A newly hired autoworker today earns $14 an hour, which adjusted for inflation, is about what Ford was paying in 1913. And today, the iconic downtown train station is a windowless ghost.

I feel guilty about it, but like so many tourists who come from all over the world to  to gape at the “ruin porn,” I, too, photographed the train station. I couldn’t help myself.

Risk vs. Rewards

Judging risk is what I do. When I represent a company that wants to start a new factory, I want that plant to go to a place where it makes the most sense. Location investigation, not a core competency for corporate America but my core competency, hinges on many factors. Risk management plays center stage in site selection.

A lot of companies and people gave up on Detroit. They no longer thought it made sense to be there and site selected themselves right out of town, seeking opportunities elsewhere.

I understand that, but I was determined not to let history necessarily color my beliefs as to the possibilities that may exist here. At least that is what I told myself going into my visit, as sponsored by the Detroit Regional Chamber.

My friend and almost neighbor, Tim Feemster with Dallas-based Foremost Quality Logistics, joined me on an expedition for facts and truth.

I Found Life

Not surprisingly, I found evidence of a new life form among the ashes. There is, in fact, an entrepreneurial, creative class that is growing along Woodward Avenue, the city’s north-south spine, from the central business district, up to midtown and into New Center.

Young professionals working in advertising agencies and PR firms, graphic design and film production studios, are building a life here because their own personal risk analysis says it’s a go. Who am I to tell them otherwise?

This is the big story that I saw – a Detroit that reinvents itself into a creative hub where the world of design emerges and where youth is the common denominator.

I saw this firsthand at Detroit Labs, which develops apps, and started with four people and now employs about 40. The medium age is 30 and t-shirts and jeans are the norm.

The company had just moved into new open space where furnishings were sparse but not the ideas.

Design, Create, Build

Youth and creativity were on display at the Detroit Creative Corridor Center (“DC3”), a partnership between Business Leaders for Michigan and the College for Creative Studies, which has a mission of educating visual artists and designers. DC3’s purpose: nurture and grow a creative local economy.

In the same building with DC3, there is a company called Shinola, whose theme is “Where American is made.”  Shinola builds watches — the kind that a grandfather would want to pass down to grandson. Leave to say, these are beautiful watches and they are made in Detroit.

From the company’s website: “We’re starting with the reinvigoration of a storied American brand, and a storied American city. Because we believe in the beauty of industry. The glory of manufacturing. We know there’s not just history in Detroit, there is a future.”

Incredible to me is that Shinola’s parent company, Bedrock Brands, is based in Plano, Texas, where I am based. I didn’t know scheisse about Shinola until I went to Detroit.

A Crazed Mission

I saw this youth-driven future yet again on display while touring Detroit Venture Partners, a venture capital firm on a self-described “crazed mission’ of providing support to seed and early-stage technology companies and thereby rebuild Detroit.

From the Detroit Venture’s website: “We view business building as a palette for creative expression and an opportunity to make a difference … The world doesn’t need another me-too anything, especially another venture firm. So we are different by design.

“We’re proud to break the rules, and love shaking things up. We’re not snooty academics or number-crunching CPA’s. We are passionate entrepreneurs that know how to build successful companies from the ground up. While others are over-analyzing, we’re busy doing.”

Detroit vs. Everybody

There is a T-shirt making the rounds that I think exemplifies the passion of doing: “Detroit vs. Everybody.”

Graphic Designer Tommy Walker gave this explanation of his creation to the Detroit Free Press:  “To see how much Detroit has contributed to the culture of America, I just felt we don’t get the credit. … I see a very beautiful, positive Detroit.”

A beautiful and positive Detroit is not America’s impression of this place but it is what Dan Gilbert is banking on. Gilbert, the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, has snapped up about 25 buildings in the downtown, about 7 million square feet in all. It’s here he is apparently making his stand and statement.

The Wizard Behind the Curtain

The Detroit Venture website lists Gilbert as general partner and “all around deranged super-genius” and “the wizard behind the curtain.” He encourages an irreverent corporate culture encapsulated in a book called “ISMs in Action,” which is characterized by humor and a lot of good sense.

While I never met him, I have to think that Gilbert is consumed with passion if not more than a little business savvy.  His “Opportunity Detroit” brand, seen emblazoned on windows downtown, is both a rescue mission and a business plan that can make him, a wealthy entrepreneur, even wealthier.

Like a number of local businesses, Gilbert has contributed funding toward a future 3.3-mile streetcar line on Woodward between downtown Detroit and the New Center area.

An Irrelevant City Government

Debt-ridden city government doesn’t appear to be much in the mix for funding the street car or much of anything. I soon determined that city government was something to be worked around, a virtual non-factor in the development plans of both the business community and for those non-profit organizations dedicated to revitalization.

If Detroit bankruptcy does anything, it may make an irrelevant city government relevant one day. That is at least the hope. For now, it is viewed largely as an obstacle to be avoided whenever possible.

I have spent a majority of this blog telling you of this great awakening that I have witnessed in Detroit. It is real and I believe it will continue based on what I saw and heard.

But there is another Detroit out there. If growth is taking place in downtown, midtown and New Center, keep in mind this is an area of about seven or eight square miles in a city of 140 square miles.

Nature Reclaims 

I asked my good hosts at the Detroit Regional Chamber to take me into the other Detroit where the fabric of community and place has been long broken. And to their credit, they did.

I was walking in an area of Corktown. I might as well been out on the prairie, as nature had reclaimed block after block of what was once had been a neighborhood. “Vacant crap” was how one of my hosts described it.

The houses were gone, having been burned and bulldozed away. I was walking on a sidewalk bordering waist tall grass when I flushed a large ringneck pheasant, a wild rooster that would have been at home in the grasslands of South Dakota.

Here was nature reclaiming Detroit. I only wish I had been carrying my shotgun.

The Ugly Numbers

So I have this inch-thick report that I intend to actually read. It’s the 2012 Detroit Strategic Framework Plan. But I got a briefing on it from the staff from the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, the agency that provides the hand holding for any company seeking to start operations in the city.

One of the goals, probably the most worthy goal in my opinion, is to double the number of jobs available in the city. And this is where it gets ugly.

About 60 percent of employed Detroiters work outside the city, which correspondingly means about 40 percent work within the city. Only 30 percent of Detroit jobs are held by Detroiters, which means that 70 percent of the jobs are held by commuters.

Of the 300,000 new jobs projected for Southeast Michigan by 2040, only 2 percent are projected to go to Detroit, where there are only 27 jobs per 100 residents. Nearly 70 percent of Detroiters without a high school diploma are unemployed or do not participate in the labor force. Twenty percent of two-year degree holders live in poverty.

These are daunting numbers, discouraging numbers, but thankfully Detroit has at least identified implementation strategies that can, if truly enacted, make a bad situation much better. Improving skills and supporting education reform has to happen if there is to be any broad-based revival of a vibrant middle class.

It simply has to or much of the fabric of this city will stay broken. I have posted some photographs from my trip on Instagram –

I’ll see you down the road.

Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas.

If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing, we can help. All requests for information are considered confidential.

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  1. Great article, Dean. Your best yet.

  2. All good observations here… Detroit has its challenges as does this country. Great ideas on where we need to focus and what it will take to come back strong.

  3. Hi Dean, your post was informative and thought provoking. I’ve learned just a little about what Detroit tried to do to overcome the challenges and what I keep listening for but never hear are strategies to encourage stable integrated (socio and economic) neighborhoods or even to bring some of those commuters back into the City. How will support for the education needed to bring non participants into the fold ever occur? There is an intersection between community and economic development and it starts with where people live

  4. Dean – Great article about a real American tragedy that could still become a comedy, in the Classical sense. I agree completely with Jenn. No city can survive without a core population of producers. There has to be life in the streets after 5pm or the city will die. Atlanta is an example. Mid-town is flourishing, in part because of the residential community, past and growing. Downtown continues to struggle; noone lives there. Government has to be “right” as well. Detroit Resurgent can never get beyond an enclave without a right sized and right thinking City government. The kleptocracy has to be ended permanently and replaced by a functioning body. I have been working in Detroit off an on for 23 years. I was there when the last Polish restaurant near the old produce terminal closed. Great food and “roll the carpets up” Polka at night. Now the Fort St / Jefferson Ave area is uninhabitable. I was back a month or so ago. Didn’t make it to the beautiful area; wish I had. Best, Jason

  5. I really like your article, Dean. And I especially appreciate the fact that you asked your hosts to show you Detroit from more than one perspective. However, I do agree with Jenn. In order for the city to overcome its decline, stakeholders must address community development ( e.g., education, affordable housing, social needs and public safety) along with economic development needs. It appears like Detroit is really making headway on the latter front but people, along with product, are essential for its comeback as well. Now if Detroit can only figure out the community piece.

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