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Think Detroit’s Done? — Think Again!

Curtis Johnson / Jun 14 2012

For Release Thursday, June 14, 2012
Citiscope News

Curtis JohnsonRepeating a too familiar refrain, the Economist, a famously serious weekly news magazine, reported in a June 9 story an outbreak of random shootings in Seattle and captioned a photo with “Not yet Detroit, though.”

There’s no debate that Detroit has big challenges. The mayor’s fighting off state control of the city’s budget, while having trouble keeping lights on the streets and garbage off them.

The school district, under emergency management, is imploding. Nearly 40 percent of the city’s land is vacant, much of it blighted. Crime, even in the remaining middle-class neighborhoods remains a problem.

No one denies these realities. But it’s also yesterday’s news.

What media accounts miss is a robust movement that’s building a new Detroit. It starts with the wave of young and mid-career professionals who’re moving to Detroit because they see opportunity.

Nothing better illustrates this movement than the 29 people chosen as Detroit Revitalization Fellows, most of whom moved or returned to Detroit to help boost its prospects. The program’s a project of Wayne State University, funded by the Kresge Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Hudson-Webber Foundation, the Skillman Foundation and Wayne State, matching rising professionals with organizations working at the forefront of building a better city.

Rachel Perschetz, who left a Washington D.C. consulting firm to work at Southwest Solutions, recalls her first exposure to Corktown, Campus Martius, the Henry Ford exhibits and the Motown Museum: “Right away I knew I wanted to be part of it. I recognized how much the city has to offer to young and creative professional people; I was inspired by the enormous potential.”

Detroit also harbors surprising possibilities. Rents to start a small business are affordable. A rich array of organizations working strategies for a new Detroit are looking for talent and finding it.

These young and mid-career professionals see something that local cynics and national naysayers don’t. They arrive with new lenses to spot opportunities. Another of the Detroit Fellows, Erin Kelly, working at NextEnergy, even sees opportunity in abandoned structures: “I am looking at how the demolition process is leveraged to create jobs and stabilize taxable property value in the city, including how to manage the land once it becomes vacant. I know we can attract investment and create jobs in Detroit by down-cycling some of the material streams coming out of these structures.”

Olga Stella, a senior staffer at the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, insists that this is actually the second wave of youthful professionals to hit town. Citing her own experience and that of friends, she knows many who came and stuck it out and are glad for it.

What mainstream media miss is the core assets of the region that have not evaporated, despite the economic trouble of recent years. A year ago I was interviewing senior governing council members of the New Economy Initiative; two of them told me that the region still boasts the third highest concentration of design professionals in the U.S. While most once made their living within the orbit of the automobile industry, enough remain to form the base of talent for a wider variety of enterprises. Who knew?

In late 2011 Detroit was cited in labor statistics as having the largest percentage growth in technology jobs. Who would have thought that?

Been to Detroit’s airport lately? It’s consistently cited as one of the three best airports in the U.S. Consider how awful airports are in larger, more affluent places like New York City or Los Angeles.

The first major paved urban corridor in the U.S. was Woodward Avenue, that arterial spine reaching from downtown Detroit out eight miles to the suburbs. Now, the first three miles of that corridor are about to see light rail built — financed mostly with private investment — a national “first.”

Detroit, home of Motown music, is also the birthplace of today’s techno music. So don’t write off the capacity to build on what once put this place on the map. And even the auto industry has bounced back from near death.

Midtown is home to a strong collection of anchor institutions such as the fabled Detroit Institute of Arts, Wayne State University, a nationally recognized research institution that includes TechTown (an incubator and a lot more). The corridor’s also home to major medical institutions like the Henry Ford Medical Center. The demand to live in this vibrant district of Detroit has risen to the point that there’s actually talk of a housing crunch. Ditto for the downtown district. Not what most people would assume.

Quicken Loans, the nation’s largest online mortgage lender, moved from the suburbs to downtown. CEO Dan Gilbert is so bullish he’s now bought nine major buildings. He’s not expecting extended vacancies.

Where downtown meets the Detroit River there’s now the Riverwalk, with a stream of new restorations and re-uses projects at the upper end where breweries once flourished. Out in the river itself sits the Olmstead-designed jewel, Belle Isle, with its bike trails and marina. Campus Martius is as good a downtown park and gathering spot as you’ll find in any big city and was designed by the same firm that did the Bellagio performance fountains in Las Vegas. The Eastern Market, a short drive away, is one of the largest fresh food distribution centers in any city.

Perhaps Michael Forsyth sums it up best. He remembers working on a GM assembly to help pay for college. He’s back now, as one of the Detroit Revitalization Fellows, working with Stella at the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation. “In 20 years Detroit’s image will be drastically changed,” he says. “College students will flock here because it’s a sexy, vibrant place and they can find job openings. We’ll be known for our innovative entrepreneurs and business owners — big and small. Many of the historic neighborhoods will be bustling with new home buyers, while residents tell their new neighbors about the great investment they made 20 years earlier.”

Curtis Johnson, president of the Citistates Group. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Howard Wooldridge
    Posted June 14, 2012 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    Given the massive felony crime in the inner city of detroit due to drug Prohibition /war on drugs, the city will never attract large numbers of people to re-populate the city.

  2. Vivian Spencer
    Posted June 30, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    This all sounds well and good. It is obviously a step in the right direction, but there is nothing to address the masses who currently live there. With 47% of the city’s population being considered “functionally illiterate,” improvement of schools will need to be addressed before a major transformation involving the current populace will take place. I doubt these young professionals will send their children to underperforming schools…while they fear for their safety.