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2 Men Responsible for Bringing Businesses to Detroit

From Governing 

by Ryan Holeywell

June 1, 2013

Two of the men charged with recruiting and retaining businesses in Detroit couldn’t have more different backgrounds.

George W. Jackson, Jr., president and CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, is a Detroit native who’s led the quasi-city agency since 2002. Meanwhile, Sandy Baruah, head of the Detroit Regional Chamber, arrived here in 2010 after working for the Bush administration; he hadn’t spent more than two consecutive nights in Michigan before taking the job. Both are poised to play important roles if the city hopes to turn around its economic fortunes.

“You can’t attract talent if you don’t have jobs,” Jackson says. “The bottom line is, if you don’t have jobs, the talent moves. That’s why a lot of people are leaving.” Indeed, city leaders say that while much of the discussion about Detroit has revolved around its shrinking population, the more troubling figure is its lack of job opportunities: there are just 27 Detroit jobs for every 100 residents. Only five of the country’s largest 100 cities have a lower rate of jobs per resident.

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The city’s growth strategy will focus on targeting several key areas: educational and medical institutions; the industrial sector; digital and creative services; and local entrepreneurs. The city’s strategy will also target investment towards seven economic districts.  “Detroit’s never been an easy sell – God no—but it sure is a lot better than it was in 1984 when I got started in this business,” Jackson says.

Indeed, Baruah says one of the city’s biggest hurdles it still struggles to overcome is “Detroit fatigue.” After hearing 30 years of negative news coming out of the city about its finances, its corruption, and the plight of the auto industry, many people outside of Detroit have written off the city completely. As a result, much of the expansion of businesses that’s been happening here lately is homegrown. “A lot of investment is from people and entities who know the city,” Baruah says, highlighting companies like Quicken and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan that are expanding in Detroit. “What we need to do next is really attract outside investment. That’s starting to happen.”

Both he and Jackson say they try to make the business case for the city – proximity to big universities, a busy border crossing, and relatively mild weather that would minimize shipping disruptions – when they pitch it to companies and site selectors.

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The message is beginning to reach outsiders. Earlier this year, ADP Dealer Services announced a deal to bring 150 jobs to Detroit, choosing it over Seattle and its hometown in Illinois. In 2010, New Jersey-based software GalaxE.Solutions announced plans to open an office in the city with 500 employees. Tim Bryan, the company’s CEO, has said cheap office space and high unemployment means it’s cost-effective to do business in the Motor City (a 10-foot banner on the side of its building encourages business to “Outsource to Detroit”).

Meanwhile, the role of Jackson’s office could expand, depending on how restructuring of the city goes under the emergency financial manager, with the DEGC potentially taking over planning and development functions from city hall. It’s a role Jackson’s happy to embrace. “I like being in an environment that has a bias towards action,” he says.