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The Place to Be

Companies continue to open locations in DetroitBy Dawson BellPages 28-29In over three decades since its founding in Oakland County, Hertz Schram has grown into a respected, mid-sized, full service law firm, with clients all over Michigan and the United States. In June, the firm announced the opening of a new office in downtown Detroit. A month later, the city filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Bad timing for Hertz Schram?

Not exactly. The firm’s managing shareholder, Victor Norris, said it couldn’t be better. A native Detroiter who began his law career as a prosecutor in the city, Norris said he never imagined he and the firm’s other founding partners, all of whom have deep Detroit ties, would ever have the opportunity to return to their roots.

But the last five years have radically changed their perception, he said. The level of energy – both commercial and cultural – in the city’s core has grown exponentially, Norris said. Development in the stadium district, around Campus Martius and throughout downtown has created untapped potential for professional service firms, he added. The city’s bankruptcy is going to be difficult, but it was necessary, and that didn’t affect Hertz Schram’s commitment.

Norris remains more than a little bullish on Detroit and has a message for others contemplating business expansion.

“Anyone who doesn’t participate now is going to miss out. I think two years from now (Detroit) will be unrecognizable,” Norris said.

Norris and Hertz Schram are not alone, said Malinda Jensen, director of business development at the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation. The resurgence in the domestic auto industry, accelerating activity downtown and favorable conditions for development elsewhere (often buoyed by still very attractive real estate prices) are driving a flurry of activity in the city.

“In spite of everything, our phones have not stopped ringing,” Jensen said.

Occupancy rates for downtown office buildings are at an eight-year high, according to Jensen. Major developments – including an $18 million automotive distribution facility projected to employ 250 to 300 that is in the final stages of planning – continue to look toward Detroit. Jensen said she sometimes encounters negative stereotypes when she travels around the country and internationally that do not reflect the reality of what is under way.

“The private market has not slowed down,” she said.

And one of the primary reasons may be that life in the city is not slowing down.

Bruce Shapiro, group managing partner for offices at the accounting and consulting firm Plante Moran, said a principle factor in their decision this year to open a major satellite office in Detroit was that its employees want to be there.

Plante Moran has experienced significant growth in recent years and was rapidly running out of office space, Shapiro said. A survey of employees indicated that a large number were attracted to the idea of living and working in an urban environment. The firm has always had a substantial client base in Detroit of insurance, tax, not-for-profit and commercial enterprises, Shapiro said, which have been served by five existing locations in Southeast Michigan.

Plante Moran, which will celebrate its 90th anniversary in 2014, was founded in Detroit. Like so many others, in the 1960s it migrated to the suburbs.

“It’s kind of always been our policy to be where our employees want to live. Detroit is now on that list,” Shapiro said.

About 65 to 70 Plante Moran employees are expected to make the move, taking over an entire  floor in the Compuware Building at One Campus Martius, later this year.

“I’ve lived in this area all my life, and I’ve never seen so much activity. We’re thrilled to be doing this,” Shapiro said.

“Our eyes are open. Everybody knows that Detroit has its share of challenges, but we’re committed to being part of the solution,” said Gordon Krater, also a managing partner at Plante Moran and a member of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Board of Directors.

Other companies are making similar moves. Moosejaw, the quirky online and brick-and-mortar outdoor retailer that was founded in Keego Harbor, opened its 11th outlet on Woodward Avenue in Detroit late last year as a holiday pop-up. It’s still there. Although still operating on limited hours, Moosejaw publicist Kristen Wood said the Detroit location has been “a great  fit” for the company, which prides itself on “doing things that not everybody else is doing.” Like a free, weekly hour of yoga for anyone who wants to drop by, and a big, in-store wall of graffiti.

Municipal bankruptcy isn’t much of a factor in those day-to-day, on-the-ground business decisions. Tapping into the emerging markets and developing a sense of community cropping up in Detroit is.

“We have problems, but everybody does,” Jensen said. “We’re going to get through this.”

Dawson Bell is a metro Detroit freelance writer.