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Detroit — Small businesses and new developments took center stage Thursday at a breakfast hosted by the Southwest Detroit Business Association.

Deputy Mayor Isaiah McKinnon and Ilitch Holdings President and CEO Chris Ilitch spoke to hundreds of community leaders, business owners and city residents gathered for the annual breakfast, held in the MotorCity Hotel’s Sound Board concert venue.

“Southwest has always had a special place in my heart, and I know so many of the people,” said McKinnon, who served as commander of the police department’s Fourth Precinct in southwest Detroit. “They’re probably one of the most organized communities in the city. We want to have growth in our communities, and they’re doing it.”

The goal of the breakfast, which has been held annually for more than 20 years, was to encourage development in southwest Detroit, SDBA President Kathy Wendler said.

“There’s been so much discussion in the press on when we’re going to get to the neighborhoods,” she said. “It’s time to start the neighborhoods, and we’ll use many of the models that downtown and Midtown have used.”

Several honorees, including small business owners, also received awards for their contributions to developments through out the city.

Ilitch in his speech praised small business owners, calling them the “engine” behind Detroit’s resurgence.

“It is my belief that as you grow as a small or medium-sized businesses, you are the true economic engine that gets Detroit back to work,” he said.

Ilitch said success stems from the ability to think big. He used his father Mike Ilitch’s dream of opening a pizza shop in every American city as an example.

“His buddies, of course, would roll their eyes. They thought he was nuts,” Ilitch said. “But it never stopped him from thinking big.”

The elder Ilitch’s Little Caesar’s Pizza empire ultimately opened in all 50 states and 18 international markets, Chris Ilitch said.

“I attribute a huge part of my parents’ success to hard work,” he said. “That strong work ethic is something my parents always instilled in their people as their businesses grew.”

The breakfast kicked off by highlighting the $6.8 million “West Vernor Streetscape Project” spearheaded by the SDBA.

“Our specific investment has been all new street lights, sidewalks and landscaping on a 2.3 mile stretch of West Vernor, from Woodmere to Clark Street,” Wendler said.

Fewer than half the streetlights on this stretch of Vernor were lit before the project got underway, SDBA board president Mike Odom said. The area was plunged into darkness each night, forcing many business owners to close early and students to walk home in the dark.

A video shown on the project featured a photograph of a business owner hugging a new streetlight pole.

About 80 percent of the $6.8 million project was funded by the federal government, Wendler said. It has been underway for about four years.

Other projects highlighted at the breakfast included the new Red Wings arena and Gordie Howe International Bridge, as well as the Riverwalk expansion west of downtown and a “mini Campus Martius” greenspace on DTE-owned land at Grand River and First Street.

“A building has come down and a green space is going in its place,” Wendler said of the DTE project.

Wendler said the key to new development in southwest is the enthusiasm of its residents and business owners. The area was the first in Michigan to establish a business improvement district that required property owners to vote on higher taxes to be used for various projects, she said.

“The property owners had to vote to increase the assessments on their properties,” she said. “I think those property owners realize it protects their investments.”

Ilitch in his speech focused on his family’s District Detroit project, featuring a new Red Wings arena alongside residential and business development.

The project has secured about $85 million in contracts so far, including $78 million awarded to Detroit-based businesses, he said.

“For our workforce, we’re aiming for 51 percent Detroiters, and this is an aggressive goal,” he said. “We’ve had nine job outreach events across the city.”

Ilitch said including Detroiters in the city’s rebound is crucial to its success.

“It’s all part of the vision of an authentic Detroit development. Detroit is in the midst of an incredible comback story, and now everyone is part of rebuilding this great American city,” he said. “For it to work, for it to really stick, we have to do it together. I believe we will.”

HFournier@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4616

@HollyPFournier

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