Business, City Transformation, Creativity, Food, News, Regional Transformation

Here’s a tasty investment: Grants for Eastern Market, local-food industry will create jobs and bring business diversity to Detroit

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Around Detroit, having a winning team means a lot. So you don’t often hear people cheering, “We’re No. 19! We’re No. 19!”

But that is where Michigan ranks in terms of its food-processing prowess. The state comes in second in terms of commercially grown crops, which means we have the stuff we need for our plates. We just cannot move it into the pipeline fast enough.

PresidentThanks to a public-private partnership announced Wednesday, food entrepreneurs will benefit from monetary grants, physical renovations and site enhancements as well as other business-minded incentives aimed at getting more locally grown food into stores, restaurants and homes across Southeast Michigan.

Here’s why you should care: Better, locally grown food. Public health. Job creation. Cleaner, safer places to shop.

Here’s why this thing is so great: Detroit, my Dear Readers, hit rock bottom this week. We cannot pay our bills, and by “we” I mean the city, the suburb and the state. ‘Cause you already know this old song: If Detroit goes down, well, we all collectively go with it. So without business investment, without the aggressive plans to expand Eastern Market, without guys like Joe McClure and Will Branch and the dozen or so other risk-taking, foodie fanatics out there getting help and funding, this city is well and truly sunk.

You gotta love that Charter One saw the local-food industry as a viable investment option. Its Growing Communities program means feeding bodies, giving people a viable way to grow the state’s agricultural dominance in new areas. Consumers and retailers want quirky, niche products that have great backstories, interesting ownership and delicious product. By God, let’s produce those marketable faces and foods right here. But I digress.

Let’s start with the press conference. With the sweet, brine-y smell of McClure’s Pickles in the background, President Ken Marblestone of Charter One and RBS Citizens in Michigan and Ohio announced Wednesday the financial institution’s Charter One Foundation was committing to a second year of funding for its Charter One Growing Communities program (how’s that for name dropping! Three times in one sentence).

“We hope to grow even more jobs and contribute to the economy vitality of our city. Charter One believes in Detroit,” said Marblestone, who described this announcement as “one of the best parts of my job.”

Grindhouse“Food is a growth industry in Michigan with room to expand and create more businesses and jobs,” Marblestone said. “One of the great things about helping companies like these is you literally get to taste their success.”

For 2013, the Foundation will donate $160,000 to the program – that’s the private part. The public part is an additional $50,000 donation from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. This grant is one more way the state – and everyone else who has ever step foot in Detroit – hopes to further destroy the belief that the city is a food desert.

The Charter One Foundation once again partnered with the Eastern Market Corp. to ensure this funding gets right to the food entrepreneurs, small businesses and urban farmers who need it the most. It will be distributed in three ways: Microgrants of up to $5,000, neighborhood enhancements and contributions to the Detroit Neighborhood Farmers’ Market Network. Applications will be available soon on the Eastern Market website; funding will start flowing this summer.

Last year, Charter One initially invested $140,000 in its Growing Communities program. Those first 22 grants helped guys like Will Branch boost his Corridor Sausage go from a single line of tasty meats to multiple lines. And any program that brings more cured meats and salami into the world, in my mind, deserves to be praised.

What I also learned about Wednesday was the bold plans of the Eastern Market Corp. for making itself and its partners a “robust, metropolitan food hub.” This involves, in part, an $8.2 million renovation to Shed 5, where a community kitchen will allow people with an idea for a product to bring it to production that much faster. The project, which is about half funded, received a $1 million boost Wednesday through a funding promise from the MEDC’s President and CEO Mike Finney.

FoodThat is part of a much larger, grander project to take Eastern Market into its 125th anniversary in 2016. Eastern Market President Dan Carmody is heading a fund-raising drive that, ultimately, will complete core projects that will turn Eastern Market and its district a model of green, sustainable business incubation. It will take more than $75 million in total – but if you don’t dream big, it won’t happen. Picture a Healthy Market Halls, a Mixed Use Model Shed, the Local Foods Accelerator, better parking, better bridges and a greenway that connects the market to the rest of Detroit.

IN the meantime, there will be a new Sunday market day – that’s something that may roll out earlier, but has an opening date of Spring 2014. It also will feature a Sunday Brunch at Shed 5, where people can meet, eat and talk about the civic and food issues of the day.

And there are big plans for massive party to celebrate Eastern Market’s 125th anniversary in 2016, said Carmody. To honor its commitment to local and regional food systems, and to show off its community kitchen, business accelerator and so much more to come, there will be a food fest of epic proportions around July 4, 2016, Carmody told the crowd of press, bankers and last year’s microgrant recipients.

Again, why bother with investing in a sinking city? Because when you invest in guys like Branch, they can go from 400 pounds of sausage per week to 1000 pounds in a timely fashion. That ability to scale up doesn’t happen when a business person operates solo – it happens when a community stands behind a good, belly-filling idea and takes it to its logical next step.

This food incubator/business accelerator idea strikes me as brilliant. Where else but at Eastern Market could you see the revitalization of the city – the best sights, sounds and smells in the whole of Detroit? It seems the bright minds that put food on our tables have the guts and talent to also bring that food to the rest of the state and beyond.

This bigger commitment to Detroit’s local-food industry is testimony to how much we have to gain from investing in our small businesses. Trust me – I got to try Branch’s sausages via his new Grindhouse food truck. Serial entrepreneurship has never tasted so good.

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