Chamber’s Detroit Policy Conference Looks at City’s Economic Resurgence

From CBS Detroit

February 28, 2013

By Matt Roush

DETROIT — While Detroit’s city government teeters on the brink, Detroiters — particularly young new Detroiters — are busy building successful businesses and whole new neighborhoods of residences where empty, blighted buildings stood before.

Their stories provided inspiration for more than 600 of Detroit’s government, business and community leaders Thursday at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s 2013 Detroit Policy Conference, held at the Motor City Casino Hotel.

Technology Report editor Matt Roush moderated the session on the region’s growing tech sector, “Outpacing Silicon Valley: How Detroit is Revolutionizing the IT Industry.”

Panelists described how they work closely with Michigan colleges and universities to keep highly trained talent in the state, and how they kept pitching their business ideas until they achieved funding and success.

Panelists included tech veteran Jim Anderson, founder, president and CEO of Detroit-based Urban Science, which pretty much invented the science of geographic information systems, translating computer data onto maps to help retailers — specifically automakers — use demographic data to decide where to put their next store. Anderson’s company, founded in 1977, now has more than 800 employees worldwide.

Henry Balanon, co-founder of Detroit Labs, talked about how his company has grown to 32 employees building mobile apps for some of the biggest names in industry, with funding from Detroit Venture Partners, the venture firm owned in part by Detroit entrepreneurs Dan Gilbert and Josh Linkner.

Jen Todd Gray, vice president of marketing and creative services at the interactive promotions firm Linkner founded, Pleasant Ridge-based ePrize, talked about how her company starts bringing in students to show them tech-based careers as young as elementary school, and continues through high school and college co-op students.

Joey Grover, software engineer and mobile technology lead at Ferndale-based Livio, talked about how his company is bringing Internet radio to the automobile. And Zafar Razzacki, account executive in the Ann Arbor office of Google Inc., talked about how his company is building online marketing campaigns for the biggest of the Fortune 500, straight out of southeast Michigan.

Panelists agreed that Detroiters often sell the region short as a place to live and enjoy a rewarding tech career.

Other highlights of the event included:

  • Chamber president and CEO Sandy K. Baruah explained Charter One bank’s Growing Communities program, which provides microgrants to vendors and farmers at Eastern Market who then use the funds to grow their businesses. The program’s participants provided the lunches and snacks served at the event.
  • Baruah also presented to the city process maps of how to accomplish various business tasks, developed by Walsh College. Part of the to-do list of the chamber’s 2012 Mackinac Policy Conference, the maps offer simple graphic representations of city processes commonly tackled by businesses to make them easier for businesses to complete — everything from getting a business license to getting approval for signs or outdoor restaurant space.
  • Matt Cullen, president and CEO of Gilbert’s holding company Rock Ventures, talked up “the other side of the story” of Detroit, investments and redevelopments made by Rock Ventures in downtown Detroit, where the company has purchased more than a dozen major buildings. Cullen spoke of rental housing and office space shortages downtown, certainly not the kind of press downtown usually gets. And he said design plans are beginning for the site of the former Hudson’s department store.
  • Urban policy expert Richard Florida, who recently wrote online that downtown Detroit’s new urban community is bigger than other cities that get much better press, offered his customary praise to the creative class, which is the economic group he says is responsible for making urban areas vibrant. Florida last year created a five-part video series titled “Detroit Rising.”
  • Another morning keynote stressed the importance of preserving Detroit’s great institutional assets, from the Cobo convention center to the Detroit Institute of Arts to riverfront parks to airports.
  • Detroit Mayor Dave Bing offered cautionary optimism about the city, reiterating no less than five times that “It’s time to change the conversation about Detroit.” He urged Detroiters to be ambassadors for their hometown, not its harshest critics.

‘Creative Class’ author Richard Florida: Region should stop blaming Detroit


February 28, 2013

By Khalil AlHajal

DETROIT, MI — Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class” gushed over the city’s Downtown-area growth and urged regional transit development in a speech at the Detroit Policy Conference on Thursday.

Florida was the morning keynote speaker in the conference being held at Motor City Casino Hotel.

He said 35 percent of the Detroit-area’s workforce is a part of what he calls the “creative class” – scientists, technologists, artists, designers, managers, health care and education workers – a larger portion than the national average.

He said that number is over 50 percent in parts of Detroit’s core Downtown-area, and up to 75 to 80 percent in some suburban areas. Ann Arbor, he said, ranks fifth nationally in creative class concentration.

“But it’s not enough,” he said. “One of the key things we have to do forward, is lift up everyone and understand that creativity not only come from the great software engineer, the great information technologist, the musician who’s made it. But it comes from – what place knows this better — it comes from the bottom, it comes from working class kids.”

He said transit, diversity, service industry innovation and nurturing urban spaces with vibrant street life are key to spreading the success of the creative economy in Detroit.

“There’s much you’ve accomplished here — a city whose Downtown comeback is amazing,” he said. “You need to connect this region’s hubs of activity through a transit strategy.

“… You need to cooperate as a region. The city-suburb thing has to go away. If I hear it again in the suburbs, I’m going to start screaming… I blame the suburbs. When you say the city is the problem. They’re not the problem. You’re the problem.”

Panel’s keys to regional mindset: Public-private cooperation … and a little fear

From Crain’s Detroit Business

March 1, 2013

By Sherri Welch

Collaboration and regional thinking are necessary to protect and spur development of Southeast Michigan’s assets, members of a panel said Thursday at the second annual Detroit Policy Conference.

In some cases, such as with Detroit riverfront development, a clear need has arisen for private and philanthropic dollars to spur on a project.

But when it comes to other assets, such as Cobo Center and the Detroit Institute of Arts, it sometimes takes the fear of losing those assets to mobilize collaboration and regionalism, said participants in the panel session “Reimagining Detroit’s Assets: Leadership, Policy and a Strong Urban Core.”

The policy conference, held at MotorCity Casino Hotel in Detroit, drew 800 people or double the number who attended last year.

Ten years ago, there wasn’t really a Detroit riverfront to speak of, said Faye Alexander Nelson, president and CEO of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, speaking as part of the session. The space along the Detroit River was primarily abandoned, and there was not much public access.

The conservancy formed 10 years ago aiming to open the waterfront to the public and spurring ancillary economic development. Over the past decade, the conservancy has completed three miles of the Detroit RiverWalk and put in place pavilions, plazas, parks, butterfly gardens, a café and carousel, among other amenities. Last summer, the conservancy launched its next phase of RiverWalk construction.

“We’ve had amazing success, … but we wouldn’t be here without a public-private partnership,” Nelson said. “Cities are really continuing to re-examine the issue of cost as it relates to operating … to pension obligations … they’re finding these public-private partnerships are very cost-positive.”

Likewise, the RiverWalk falls on land belonging to private owners and the city of Detroit, so the private and philanthropic sectors needed their collaboration, as well, Nelson said.

Before reopening a few years back after renovations and the reinstallation of its vast collection, the DIA Arts was marketing the collection in a way art historians thought appropriate, but it was primarily an intellectual exercise, Director Graham Beal said.

“What started off in my mind as rethinking art … shifted … into a museum that was about the visitor,” Beal said

“Without that transformation, … without turning museum into something the public felt it had ownership in, we could not have gone for the millage.”

Beal was referring to the millage the DIA secured from voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties last August.

Also helping spur passage of the millage was a strong and clear message that without the much-needed operating funds, the DIA would be forced to cut its programs or shut its doors entirely.

A similar fear arose with Cobo when news got out that automakers might take the North American International Auto Show elsewhere, said Larry Alexander, chairman of the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority and president of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Legislation put in place in 2009 created a five-member authority with representation from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties; the city of Detroit; and the state. Decisions required blanket agreement to proceed.

Unquestionably, fear over losing the auto show was one of the key reasons that the region was able to come together to create the Cobo authority, Alexander said.

Other cities such Chicago were saying they had more space and better centers.

“I think that drove the political leadership to come together and say we’ve got to make sure we don’t let our No. 1 auto industry (event) leave Detroit,” Alexander said. “And as a result, we now have a five-year agreement” for the auto show, which in turn helps attract other groups and events.

The Wayne County Airport Authority came together in 2002 amid fears of a state takeover of Detroit Metropolitan Airport after a state investigation and wide-ranging federal grand jury inquiry examining the administration of then-Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara and possible kickbacks, patronage and influence peddling and questionable construction contracts for the $1.2 billion McNamara Terminal.

The authority is represented by four Wayne County executive appointees, two appointed by the governor and one by the Wayne County Commission.

Today, under the direction of the authority, the airport is highly competitive and service-oriented, Airport Authority CEO Thomas Naughton said.

Metro serves about 150 nonstop destinations, 27 international destinations and 1,100 daily takeoffs and is Delta Air Lines‘ second-largest hub in the world.

That activity generates about $7.6 billion in economic impact for the region each year, Naughton said.

The authority’s board concentrates on what is in the best interests of the entire community and can plan beyond the next election cycle in support of its business plan, he said.

Opening date of Whole Foods in Midtown Detroit to be announced Friday


February 28, 2013

By David Muller

DETROIT, MI – The exact opening date of the highly anticipated Whole Foods in Midtown Detroit will be announced tomorrow, Red Elk Banks, the company’s executive operations coordinator, said at the Detroit Policy Conference Thursday.

For months, the company said the 20,000-square-foot Midtown store would be opening this Spring. In November, company spokeswoman Kate Klotz said the company typically announces its opening dates 60 days prior to coming online.

Work on the building began in August. Once open, the location will employ about 80 people.

The retailer was also reportedly given $4.2 million in tax credits to open the store at the corner of Woodward and Mack Avenue. Last June, the Michigan Economic Development Corp.announced a $1 million incentive for the construction of the Midtown store.

Gilbert seeks ideas for developing Hudson’s site in Detroit

From the Detroit Free Press

February 28, 2013

By JC Reindl, 

Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert is planning an international design competition to solicit ideas for redeveloping the site of the former Hudson’s department store in downtown Detroit.

Matt Cullen, president of Rock Ventures, the real estate arm of Gilbert’s business interests, revealed the plan this morning during a presentation on current and future “Live, Work, and Play” vision for the city at the Detroit Policy Conference in the MotorCity Casino-Hotel.

More details will come in several weeks when the contest is formally announced, Cullen said.

A new building with ground floor retail and residential units on higher floors is one possibility, Cullen said, noting the nearly 100% occupancy rate for recent residential developments in downtown.

The 25-story Hudson’s building at 1206 Woodward took up an entire city block and was once the second-largest department store in the world. “It is an iconic site,” Cullen said.

The store closed in 1983 and, on Oct. 24, 1998, the building was explosively imploded before a gathering of about 50,000 spectators.

There is currently a parking structure underneath the site. The property is controlled by the city of Detroit, and Gilbert’s Rock Ventures received a time extension on Wednesday from the state’s Michigan Strategic Fund to come up with development plans for a renaissance zone there with multiple tax breaks.

Gilbert is willing to spend up to $75 million.

“We’re reaching the point where new construction will make a lot of sense for residential because there is such demand,” Cullen said.

Cullen also said that Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures expects to hire 2,000 workers during the next 12 to 18 months and hopes to bring 1,000 young interns to Detroit this summer.

Urban theorist Richard Florida, author of the influential “Rise of the Creative Class,” gave a conference presentation on the economic benefits to harnessing the potential of the many knowledge workers living in the metro Detroit.

7-11 expects to have 3 stores in downtown Detroit this year

From Crain’s Detroit Business

February 28, 2013

By Ryan Felton

It’s been nearly two decades since there was an option to purchase a Slurpee from 7-Eleven Inc. inside Detroit’s city limits.

By year’s end, three stores are expected to open in the downtown business district, according to Stephen Oliver, regional development director for the Dallas-based convenience store chain, confirming previous reports about the company’s plans, announced last summer.

“Detroit’s metro area is probably the largest market where we have stores, but we have no stores in the city,” Oliver told Crain’s at the Detroit Policy Conference today at MotorCity Casino Hotel. “So, our growth effort is to get back into the city.”

Oliver said the company’s revived interest in downtown Detroit isn’t entirely due to the resurgence of activity in the district over the past few years, but rather a reflection of the company’s emphasis on “urban centers” across the country.

More downtown activity, he said, creates an opportunity for the compan to act as a catalyst for bringing more businesses inside city limits, he said.

“We can be a precipice for growth,” he said. “Someone has to be first, we tend to be first, and people tend to follow.”

Oliver said the elements exist to support a successful 7-Eleven store in the downtown district. He said the two main factors the company looks for in gauging a site’s potential success is the number of pedestrians and density.

“I’m looking for a certain number of people to cross the front of my store, not across the street,” he said. “The densities are there; we’re just not giving people reason to leave the building.”

The benchmark the company looks for in a potential site, Oliver said, is for there to be more than 10,000 people within a quarter-mile walking distance of the storefront.

Oliver said the company is negotiating four to six sites around the Renaissance Center and Comerica Park. He said if all goes smoothly there could be three stores operating by summer, but “the end of the year is probably more realistic.”

7-Elevens are known for being 24-hour operations. Although crime rates have fallen in downtown and Midtown, the city overall still struggles with high crime rates. Oliver said 7-Eleven does operate some stores that aren’t open 24 hours, but there are not many.

If anything, he said, 7-Elevens are an asset to a community that may be struggling with crime issues. He said they do commissary, bakery, overnight delivery, grocery deliveries and soft drinks delivery, “so there’s a lot of activity on the site.”

“Another thing we’ve found is that when we’re open 24 hours we become the eyes of the neighborhood,” He said. “And I don’t want to say things become safer, but there’s more activity, which breeds [an environment where] everyone is looking out for one another.”

He said the company has successful stores in areas similar to Detroit.

“I just opened a store in a part of Denver where we were the first retailer to go in there,” he said. The company took an old storefront in disuse, tore it down, renovated it “and the neighbors love it.”

Oliver said the company previously looked at areas in Midtown surrounding the Wayne State University campus. However, the only sites currently expected to open are in the downtown area, he said.