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Detroit Policy Conference challenges notion that downtown, hipsters will be Detroit’s salvation

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Here’s two big takeaways from Thursday’s Detroit Policy Conference: Detroit needs eds, meds and public-sector employers more than hipsters.

2- crowdSecondly, we are becoming a big bunch of complainers. The biggest complaint was that the city needs to work on its collaboration, networking and communication with the neighborhoods as well as the suburbs. And, although complaining as a whole is whiny and annoying, it is a good thing in this instance.

First, a little bit of information on the Detroit Policy Conference. This grand production of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce is like the Woodstock of business conferences. It has about 600 participants, top-notch speakers and a sexy backdrop inside the MotorCity Casino and Sound Board, which makes you wish Chamber CEO Sandy K. Baruah would bring out a guitar and smash it. Or something like that.

It’s the little things that make this conference great. You never know what the panel discussions will bring – you get some snark and controversy. You hear Phil Cooley of Slows Bar BBQ explain how his Ponyride Indiegogo campaign, while successfully raising $30,000, was a pain because it took four people to operate and turned them into a retail store instead of a business incubator. You get former Detroit City Council member Sheila Cockrel taking on all comers when talking about the city’s water and sewer issues. People get riled up, and that’s thrilling for anyone who’s ever sat through a business conference.

1- candyAnd it’s the tiny touches, like the bowls chock full of full-size candy bars set out for snacking in the networking areas. It’s the cell-phone charging station where you can hook up your smartphone, lock it up and walk away to eat said candy, schmoozing all the way there and back. It’s the businesses that donate tables in the schmoozing area to great organizations like Detroit Soup, ensuring smaller crowdfunding-style accelerators get their due as well as the banks and such.

But I digress. The main takeaways again are that maybe, just maybe, we’re focusing too much on downtown and the hipsters. We’re moving too slowly toward Detroit’s recharge. That we need to work together even more and get this Detroit show on the road. People were pointing fingers at absentee landlords who hold up development in Corktown and Midtown. They were spiteful at careless homeowners who say they still hold a property ready for demolition, preventing a much-needed eyesore from coming down. These issues are real, and the sense of frustration from the speakers and panelists was palatable. And awesome.

4 - lockerWhy awesome? Because that means people are ready to move forward. They’re not satisfied with the city as it stands. They know there is better there. They KNOW it. They want it. They can do it. They’re the ones making it happen. Banks won’t lend you money? Pffft. Get a space at Ponyride. Get some money from Detroit Soup. Get at it.

But there also was the maturity there to say – that’s not enough, either. Banks need to start recognizing that Detroit is viable and they need to open up their purse strings to its potential. Landlords sitting on great buildings need to start building them up again. Downtown isn’t the be all, end all solution; it’s just the beginning of the city’s evolution.

A highlight of the day for sure was the tongue lashing the city got from Tom Sugrue, the David Boies Professor of History and Sociology, University of Pennsylvania. Why should we care if this guy (who grew up in Detroit) thinks we’ve got no focus? Because his book on the city, “The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit,” kinda nailed it.

Sugrue made his points clear. To make this mess work, Detroit needs a diversified labor market with secure jobs. Education matters far more than people are recognizing right now; there must be massive investments in teaching our children. Density matters. The population cannot be scattered over 139 miles. Cities that thrive have people, commerce, employers lumped together. It creates networking and community building.

Perhaps the most key message was that Downtown doesn’t trickle down. The so-called “Edifice Complex” Sugrue joked about doesn’t work; new downtown construction isn’t a sign of urban growth or an overall healthy city. Enclaves don’t scale up. Gentrification doesn’t affect the rest of the city, neighborhoods. Hipsters won’t save.

Tom_Sugrue_colorAnother major note is that we all need to be further invested in “Eds, Meds and public-sector employers.” These are critical in city’s economic future. You don’t build on a coffee house. You build on hospitals, universities and the like. They are your anchors. They’re not likely to pick up and move like auto industry or smaller manufactures. Plus, they provide that diverse range of jobs – hospitals, surgeons and orderlies, financial managers and data entry specialists. That’s the ladder into the middle class.

One more thing: Sugrue says to remember the immigrants. His grandparents came in 1923 from Ireland. He said your best bets are to focus on Hamtramck. Southeast Detroit. There’s a reason they have what arguably are the most vital shopping areas. They need opportunities, incentives, support to attract immigrants.

And, finally, he brought it home:  Don’t go it alone. Region maters, more now than ever. Detroit cannot be isolated. Suburbanites cannot be allowed to think: It’s their problem, not our problem. Their belief that Detroit is a “sinkhole for tax dollars” must not stand.

Fascinating stuff. And the Starbursts were the icing on the cake.

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