Detroit Entrepreneurs Serving Up Creative Pitches to Revitalize City

One of the things you have to find striking about Detroit’s entrepreneurial movement is this: its members come up with some crazy-sounding, off-the-wall ideas for small businesses. It’s as if no niche is too niche-y, and far-fetched is no barrier to forging ahead. Considering the city’s dire straits, you have to admire that. And hope for the best.

There have been a slew of stories in the national media lately about small business activity in Detroit. It’s newsworthy because until fairly recently, there hardly was any startup culture to speak of. Detroit was a notoriously difficult place to open a business, let alone keep it operating in the black. And the pace of the city’s transformation, even during the moderately hopeful, pre-Great Recession early 2000s, was downright glacial.

If those factors haven’t necessarily been turned on their head, there are abundant signs that business creation, at least, is changing for the better.

“This is a tough place to be an entrepreneur,” said Bud Liebler, a former Chrysler executive who purchased The Whitney restaurant in 2007 “The overhead is incredible. You have to serve a hell of a lot of lunches and dinners. In fact, I’m not even sure you can serve enough.”

But, he told journalists and bloggers gathered for lunch in the 1890s Romanesque Revival restaurant, “Detroit deserves this place.”

Love For the D

That sentiment — of love for the city and its faded treasures — is a familiar one among the entrepreneurs I met or heard from during a recent tour of the city with the Detroit Regional News Hub.

Here are a few examples of business startup plans in the works across the city:

  • Imagination Station, near the decaying Michigan Central Depot, consists of two derelict abandoned homes owned by entrepreneurs who want to create a creative and digital media campus
  • An outdoor theater that plans to use a leafy, vacant lot to stage “greener,” less energy-intensive plays
  • A neighborhood development group that is fighting with a bank to gain the title to an iconic, vacant geodesic dome house where it wants to locate a recording studio
  • A business that would build furniture using materials salvaged from abandoned homes, carefully researched and cataloged to reflect the history of the homes and its previous inhabitants
Cafe Con Leche, an attractive coffee shop that opened in recent years on a main drag in Detroit's Mexican Town.

I met Karen Gage, co-owner of Wheelhouse Detroit, a bike shop which opened in 2008 on the city’s RiverWalk. The business started as a rental and service operation but later added retail and guided tours, which it offers by neighborhood or theme, such as architecture or automotive heritage.

“We wanted to try an entrepreneurial business,” Gage said of herself and her partner, Kelli Kavanaugh, who also has experience working for economic development nonprofits. “It was a challenge, something different from what we were already doing.”

Over lunch at The Whitney, Gage and Andy Linn, co-owner of the City Bird boutique in Midtown, spoke about how they’ve seen a big uptick in tourists visiting Detroit, particularly from Europe. Both business owners say they benefit from outsiders’ interest in the city.

“It’s been a pleasant surprise to me that a large proportion of our customers come from outside of the city,” Linn told me. He thinks that’s a good thing, since it gives him an opportunity to point out other businesses in the neighborhood for them to visit.

A Downtown Revival?

But there is hope for building up more of a 24-hour population, which planners argue is key for any city’s revitalization hopes.

Several of Midtown’s major employers are offering employees incentives to buy or rent homes in the area. And while Midtown’s population has dropped, it’s on the rise downtown. From the New York Times:

Recent census figures show that Detroit’s overall population shrank by 25 percent in the last 10 years. But another figure tells a different and more intriguing story: During the same time period, downtown Detroit experienced a 59 percent increase in the number of college-educated residents under the age of 35, nearly 30 percent more than two-thirds of the nation’s 51 largest cities.

No wonder Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans, is pitching his vision of a downtown Detroit tech corridor to the masses. (Watch him talk about the city’s transformation in this interview with Forbes below)

Will it all work? Who knows. Some startups will certainly fail; that’s just the law of averages. But it has to happen to start a chain reaction.

Tom Walsh put it well in a recent column about a new business loan program in the city:

Will microloans be the savior of Detroit’s struggling economy, or even a major driver of revival? Not likely, but there’s no single magic bullet for a city that has lost more than half its population, causing real estate values and tax base to plummet.

Detroit’s future depends on revival of private-sector job creation by a host of new companies, not on bailouts, big companies or big labor unions.

What do you think? Does this entrepreneurial wave in Detroit have legs?