‘Economic Gardening’ Shows Potential for City’s Survival

Obvious blanket-statement alert: there probably is no “golden widget” or huge company that will sweep in and save Detroit with 100,000 new jobs, a vibrant tax base and a massive population injection.

Instead, a group of entrepreneurs and like-minded residents are coming forward with a new and more reasonable approach. It goes something like this: Detroit is better served with a focus on “economic gardening.” In other words, the city should support its small-business base in a way that allows these Moms and Pops to develop meaningful relationships with the neighborhoods they serve.

OK…we basically all agree on these two fundamentals. Now…how do we get there from where we are now? That, my friends, was the crux of the discussions Thursday evening at the Detroit Public Works Entrepreneurs Summit.

Its subhead or alternative name was “Making Detroit Open for Business.” This meeting of the minds brought together business owners and city officials from all areas. Indeed, the summit was so important that Mayor Dave Bing was on hand, offering a proverbial olive branch to those who attended.

Bing noted that some believed the city previously focused its attention on areas like downtown, failing to lift up the other portions of the city. Thus, huge employers got all the ink while the small vendors and shopkeepers were largely ignored. That is not so now, he said, and things will improve going forward.

It was good to see the Mayor out at the event, part of the many (MANY!) community meetings the city is holding to support the Detroit Works Project. If all goes well, the city will have a meaningful outline by year’s end for how to shape Detroit considering its massive population loss, abandoned neighborhoods and declining tax base. Some may think the Project is all about land use (or a land grab for you pessimists) but it is so much more. To my bespectacled eyes, it is about finding a way to identify Detroit’s greatest challenges and potential.

“We want to know the problems. We want to be your solution,” Bing told the audience of about 150 people (many who closed up shop early to be there, thereby losing valuable on-the-job hours). “Detroit has to be a city that is business friendly. … If our city is going to come back to prosperity, it’s because of people like you – the small-business owner.”

The city’s job, Bing said, is to create an environment where small businesses can succeed. Then, business owners can bring the jobs to Detroit, which will build a tax base and allow the city to fund more service to its residents and business owners.

Described in another way (courtesy of Vince Keenan), Detroit needs “place-making businesses,” or companies that link residents to their neighborhoods. This not only improves the quality of life for residents, but it would give the city the jobs and funds it needs to improve.

In listening in on some of the break-out or group sessions held Thursday, it seems there is a massive disconnect between the city that is and the city that Detroit hopes to be. I’m greatly simplifying the issues, but here’s my take: Business owners are telling city officials that they need to radically change how they handle small-business issues. Detroit is hamstrung by old policies and old ways. And it is just not nimble enough to fix the problems without rethinking pretty much everything.

Case in point: I sat at a table with two business owners. Without naming names, one is a bar that has been open about a year. The other is a long-standing restaurant with tons of customers. Both had stories to tell of the city’s missteps, unforgivable mistakes and general mismanagement. For example, the restaurant had tried to set up food stations around the big St. Patrick’s Day parade. It had gotten permission from the Health Department to do so. It was even on private land. But a city official came out as the event was happening to shut the booths down, saying they had failed to get the necessary permits or licenses or what have you.

Meanwhile, the new guy told a tale of trying to get permission to have a tent outside his business on the Detroit Tigers’ Opening Day. It sounded like a snafu of tsunami size; he estimated he and his partner spent more than a week seeking city permits, and they spent far more in clearing up decade-old bills that belonged to previous owners than making progress.

Another business owner who spoke up described how business inspectors regularly visit his favorite eatery during its lunch rush – and then refused to come back during a slower time. These inspectors, he argued, should be more like customer-service employees, working hard to give Detroit a positive image among business owners. Rather, they tend to be a thorn in their side.

Reality is about a dozen steps – and hundreds if not thousands of dollars – are standing in the way of many companies. Even if the city could manage to eliminate the four to six inspectors who visit a business for its electrical, plumbing and other facilities management on an annual basis with just one person…that would be a major improvement. (For what it’s worth, it does sound like the city is headed in that direction.)

It was a fascinating yet disturbing picture of all that has been done, and all that we have failed to do. Detroit has the power to do so much if only some of these issues could be resolved. And, for what it is worth, it seems like these summits are on the right path toward clarifying what has to be fixed – and actually making something happen.

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