Howes: Detroit 2.0 embraces entrepreneurial roots

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Mayor Mike Duggan is charting a path for the city's post-bankruptcy recovery marked by something this city hasn't celebrated in a long time: entrepreneurship.

"I'm not talking about giving anything to anyone," the mayor said in his State of the City address Tuesday, anticipating possible criticism from the right and the left. "You want the jobs, you're going to have to work for it. You want the investment, you're going to have to compete for it."

Amen. A century after Michigan entrepreneurs put the world on wheels and Detroit morphed into the nation's definitive Big Company town, leaders of the largest American city to emerge from municipal bankruptcy are going back to the city's roots to fashion a Detroit 2.0.

The arc of the city's future, fueled by outside and home-grown capital, is bending toward smart investment in small business and innovation. Add, too, assistance from foundations, corporate donors and a tech-savvy City Hall — not such economic home runs of yore as auto plants and casinos, to name two.

"I'd like to see the next big home run, but it's going to come from one of these entrepreneurs," Duggan said in an interview Wednesday. "If I can create an environment where the entrepreneurs can come in, the rest will take care of itself."

Think about that for a second. Here's the mayor of Detroit, a job historically built to drive the hunt for the Next Big Thing to protect the status quo, advancing the market proposition that capital will go where it's invited and stay where it's welcomed.

This isn't Coleman Young displacing a neighborhood to make way for the Next Big Thing of a General Motors Co. assembly plant. Or Dennis Archer betting on the Big Things of two stadiums and a Compuware headquarters.

Nor it is Kwame Kilpatrick engineering a fraught financial deal to avoid meeting pension obligations, contributing to Detroit's collapse into bankruptcy. Or cozying up to mortgage mogul Dan Gilbert, a post-Kilpatrick gambit that began to pay off long after Hizzoner was in the pokey.

And it's not yet another mayor succumbing to the municipal thicket of bureaucracy, union work rules and shoddy management that combined to tip the city into bankruptcy. As much as the latest mayor publicly opposed the Chapter 9 case, the fact is that Team Duggan is likely to benefit from the bankruptcy — and so will the residents.

This is different, a city's leadership embracing the techy, entrepreneurial wired world as it is and trying to turn it to the advantage of a city preparing its next act.

City Hall aims to harness information technology, smartphones and management rigor to improve basic services for neighborhood residents and downtown businesses alike, in the process boosting bureaucratic accountability. What a concept.

A Democratic mayor pursues an all-of-the-above strategy in ways his last five predecessors never really did, even with Democrats in the governor's office. He presses officials in the U.S. Treasury Department for help to make mortgages more available for under-valued homes; asks the Transportation Department for funds to upgrade decrepit buses.

His administration corrals government agencies and foundations into funding an $8 million, zero-interest home rehab program; seeks support from a Republican governor and Legislature for a bill to reduce interest rate on payment plans to avert tax foreclosures; courts investment from financial heavyweights like JPMorgan Chase & Co. Inc. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to support small business expansion.

"We never expect everything to work," JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon said in an interview Wednesday, adding that a Detroit recovery is in the interest of the successor to the National Bank of Detroit. "The important thing is not just the money. We're adding our intelligence to the money."

Don't kid yourself: it hasn't been that way in a long time, not as Detroit's decade-long (or more) downward spiral into receivership and bankruptcy repelled capital investment in what many considered the archetype of throwing good money after bad.

All of this is less evidence of Detroit's "comeback" than it is proof of an evolution offering new kinds of opportunity. The old, generation-bound battles and worldviews of the past finally are disappearing, discredited by failure and history.

From JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs to the national foundations and the local New Economy Initiative, from private-sector corporate relocations to real estate investment, the smart money is betting on a Detroit following a different, more competent and business-friendly path.

Duggan and his team, however occasionally imperfect, see this. They are not alone.

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Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at