Fredric V. Rolando
Victoria Roby is one of the
young entrepreneurs working
to revitalize Detroit.
Tyson Gersh looks over
the urban produce farm
DETROIT A CITY ON THE RISE
Destruction can lead to opportunity take the rebirth of Detroit as an example. As the city rises from the devastation of the Great Recession of 2008-2009, thousands of entrepreneurs
are finding a foothold in the Motor City by using the same marriage of innovation and muscle that first made it a great metropolis.
Rising from the ruins isn’t a new experience for Detroit-the city’s last renaissance, which began in the 1970s, produced the skyline and riverfront that delegates to the 71st Biennial
Convention will see when they gather in the Cobo Center next month.
But unlike the prior recovery, when the city hitched a ride on the U.S. auto industry recovery that followed a 1970s industry slump, Detroit couldn’t lean on automobile factories to right its economy because automobile manufacturing no longer was the city’s bedrock industry. The financial crisis of 2008-2009 exposed deeper economic weaknesses that made Detroit more
vulnerable to the nationwide economic slump-and that would require a more fundamental retooling to fix.
The city has earned its new nickname, “America’s Comeback City,” by rebuilding from the ground up. While some of Detroit’s recovery is fueled by big investors, scores of young, hungry business pioneers are taking the opportunity to start from scratch by filling storefronts and empty lots again, one by one.
Look at Victoria Roby, for example. Roby graduated from Wayne State University in Detroit with a business degree in 2008—just in time for the Great Recession, which hit Detroit particularly hard and forced the city into bankruptcy five years later. But while her friends moved
to other cities, Roby stuck with Detroit.
Using $50 borrowed from her sister, she founded The Natural Market to sell her own line of beauty and relaxation products. Roby started by opening a small storefront. With the help of a
Detroit business incubator program, a co-working space shared with other businesses and a loan program for startups like hers, Roby has expanded her sales online and now has customers all over the world.
It wasn’t easy. “I went broke so many times,” Roby said. But her business took off when she created products for other Detroit stores to sell, many exclusive to each store. She developed a brand and spread her success throughout the city.
“You have to never give up, and never quit,” Roby said.
Roby’s trials were compounded by a shrinking city. The financial crisis did more than take jobs from Detroit’s workers; it hastened the depopulation of the city like an economic hurricane,
leaving abandoned buildings and homes to crumble. By 2012, Detroit’s poverty rate was 42.3 percent, meaning that 2 out of 5 residents lived below the official poverty level. A spike in crime followed. The population plummeted as residents left to find jobs elsewhere or were forced from their homes by foreclosure. Others fled due to fear of crime. The city’s population now stands at 672,000, a third of its peak of 1.8 million in 1950.
As Detroit’s tax base collapsed and it struggled to function, the state of Michigan moved to seize financial control of the city, but the effort failed. In 2013, Detroit filed the largest municipal
bankruptcy in U.S. history—defaulting on $18.5 billion of debt, 400 percent higher than the previous record.
But Detroit isn’t just another city-it’s a city that was built and rebuilt with a blend of ingenuity, hard work and pride into a global industrial center. As the nation slowly emerged from the financial crisis that nearly destroyed Detroit, so too is the city breathing new life into its old buildings and streets. The task was made possible by a coordinated effort involving local and state government, private investors, philanthropists and everyday citizens. Leading the effort is Mayor Mike Duggan (D), who has focused on improving basic city services and boosting optimism since he was elected just after the bankruptcy. Duggan has focused on fundamentals
critical for a functioning city, such as infrastructure needs. Detroit’s dark streets had become a symbol of decay and a haven for crime, but a three-year, $185 million project to fix thousands
of street lamps left dark by deferred maintenance and vandalism has relit the city.
The new QLine streetcar system, which opened last spring, links the downtown business district with neighborhoods to the north on three miles of track, and could easily be extended. The city’s initiatives to build new affordable housing and keep elderly residents from losing their homes are easing the housing crisis.
Detroit negotiated an end to the bankruptcy in 2014, and regained control of its finances from a state control board in April.
In the private sector, billionaire Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of the mortgage giant Quicken Loans and owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, is driving the effort to repurpose the largest buildings. Gilbert has invested in the recovery by buying more than 90 buildings in the business district and refurbishing or replacing many of them.
But the real work of bringing Detroit back is happening at street level. Taking advantage of Detroit’s dirt-cheap supply of workspace and eager, skilled workers, entrepreneurs like Roby are starting new ventures, repurposing or remaking old buildings and restoring or replacing homes.
They are even establishing “urban farms” in empty lots.
Former landscaper and University of Michigan graduate Tyson Gersh bought a six-unit apartment complex in Detroit’s North End neighborhood at a tax auction for $5,025 in 2011. Using an empty 1.5-acre plot, Gersh turned the complex into an organic produce farm, providing fresh fruits and vegetables directly to urban dwellers often hard-pressed to find such food.
Gersh sees urban farms like his as a way to reinvent the city with green infrastructure at its
center. “I think we could be a case study, a proof of the concept of how we can be redesigning our cities,” he said.
Private philanthropists have assisted the efforts of small entrepreneurs like Gersh by investing in start-up companies or helping struggling small businesses. An initiative by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan has helped launch more than 2,500 companies, supporting employment for 25,000 workers, since 2007. Last year, the project helped nearly 3,000 companies grow and assisted in starting 292 more, about half of them led by minorities and 57 percent by women. Business incubators such as Build Institute, which helped Roby with
her business, provides classes, tools, and networking for both experienced and aspiring entrepreneurs in Detroit. Since Build Institute was launched in 2012, more than 1,400 entrepreneurs have graduated from the program.
The focus on innovation has brought new research facilities to the city. For example, the American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute, a consortium of the federal
government and research universities focusing on development of new lightweight metals, made its headquarters in an abandoned Detroit building in 2015.
To boost the housing market, where the number of mortgage loans made by banks dropped from thousands each year to just a few hundred annually at the height of the crisis, banks and landowners are experimenting with no-interest loans, minimalist “tiny houses” and the sale of city-owned housing at a loss to jump-start the market. When they can find the cash to finance their dreams, buyers are snapping up homes at bargain prices and rehabilitating them.
Even tourism entrepreneurs are devising new angles on their business. Some offer tours of abandoned buildings and factories for their historical and architectural interest. But the tours also reveal signs of progress, as some of the formerly abandoned sites are undergoing rehabilitation for new uses. For instance, the sprawling ruins of the Packard auto plant, which closed long before the financial crisis, have attracted an investor who plans to transform it into a mixed-use development with homes, businesses, restaurants and even a brewery.
The recovery efforts are making their mark, pointing the city’s vital statistics in the right direction. Unemployment has dropped dramatically, to 7.8 percent from its high mark of 28 percent in 2009. Poverty has declined slightly to 35.7 percent, depopulation has slowed—and an Urban Institute study released last year projected that Detroit’s population would begin increasing again soon, which would be the first growth since the 1950s. A special economic activity index created by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago to measure Detroit’s progress
shows the city’s economic output steadily rising since 2011—and now reaching pre-2009 levels. And the city is operating with a balanced budget.
Even dog attacks on letter carriers have improved. According to Postal Service data, carriers reported 32 attacks in 2017, down 50 percent from the 48 in the prior year. (For more on dog attack statistics, see the story on page 25).
And yet, Detroit’s recovery has been uneven so far. The greatest progress has been in the downtown business district and in areas of relative wealth, most of them with predominantly white-owned homes and businesses. African-Americans, who now represent 80 percent of Detroit’s population, have experienced a smaller share of the upturn.
But Mayor Duggan says the fruits of the recovery are spreading as he works toward a city with opportunity for all.
“I told you the first four years, we were going to try and fix the services,” he said in a State of the City speech in March. “Now we’re talking about building one Detroit for all of us, and we’re going to do it together.”
With the city’s government-investor-philanthropy partnership at work, and the grit and determination of its people, Detroit is likely to see even better days soon.
VETERANS GROUP PROJECT TO ASSIST LOCAL VETERANS
Homelessness isn’t seasonal and, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the nation’s homeless veterans are mostly males (4 percent are females). The VA also states that 23 percent of the homeless population are veterans.
Among the homeless are several generations of veterans whose service spans many of the various wars and conflicts, including World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
According to the Center of American Progress, veterans are disproportionately homeless in relation to other groups. The Center states that:
“The NALC Veterans Group is about veterans helping veterans,” Assistant to the President for Community Services Christina Davidson said. “The group is 10,600 strong and growing. At the national convention in Detroit, I am asking our fellow letter carrier NALC Veterans Group
members to join me in the Veterans Group Project.” The project will consist of assembling 2,000 homeless care kit bags to provide assistance to fellow veterans. Davidson is asking for NALC Veterans Group volunteers to join her on Tuesday, July 17, after general session to assemble and distribute bags, and provide assistance to those veterans in need.
Detroit’s four transition homes for homeless veterans that will receive the donated care kit bags:
“I hope letter carriers in the Veterans Group will volunteer for this project to support their fellow veterans in need and do their part to ensure that no one is left behind,” Davidson said.
Convention blood drive
NALC and the American Red Cross will be hosting a blood drive at the national convention in Detroit. Delegates to the convention are encouraged to schedule an appointment.
The need for blood is constant and only volunteer donors can fulfill that need for patients in every community. Nationwide, someone needs a unit of blood every 2 to 3 seconds and almost everyone will need blood in their lifetime.
The drive will be on Tuesday, July 17, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Go to nalc.org/convention to make an appointment.
Wayne County, MI
AFL - CIO
71st Biennial National Convention
Cobo Center, Detroit July 16-20, 2018