Howes: Survey rates Detroit ‘excellent’ business play

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Entrepreneurs Roger Penske and Dan Gilbert, fresh from last week’s launch of the QLine streetcar, aren’t the only business heavyweights bullish on Detroit.

The Kresge Foundation’s 2017 “Detroit Reinvestment Index,” to be released Wednesday at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says 84 percent of the 300 national business leaders it surveyed last December believe Detroit can recover “and become a great American city once again.”

Some 72 percent rate Detroit “an excellent or good investment opportunity,” and 300 of metro Detroit’s own entrepreneurs are even more bullish. Both groups say Detroit offers much of what they need to succeed, the foundation’s FTI Consultants found, because it is “a place looking to attract new investment,” a “city where it’s possible for companies to make a difference.”

They’ve got that right. Detroit the city, Detroit the metro region and their business reach are large enough to be globally significant (think automakers and their suppliers, the empires of Penske and Gilbert). They’re also small enough for small businesses, even individuals, to drive change you can actually see.

That’s comparatively rare. It’s a critical, if under-appreciated, ingredient that explains how Detroit’s reinvention continues to gather momentum, to attract outside investment and to repatriate talent that found success elsewhere but decided to return home because home is changing.

The biggest roadblocks, seven years into its post-recession rebound, are finding employees with the right skills to fill vacancies and, second, quickening the revitalization of the city’s neighborhoods. Another problem: too few customers with spending power.

Younger business leaders heading fast-growing companies are more optimistic than their elders; both white and non-white business people share enthusiasm for Detroit’s business climate; and those actually operating in the city, the folks who know it best, are among the most optimistic.

Other encouraging factors, the survey found, are a broad-based economic recovery extending beyond the plateauing auto cycle; new emerging industries signaling diversification; “innovative” approaches to urban redevelopment; commitment to sound municipal budgeting practices.

The message is once again clear in Kresge’s survey, the second in as many years: the city that America — and a whole lot of Detroiters — gave up for dead is manufacturing enthusiasm, optimism and growing confidence in a place that produced none of them for a lot of years.

The rolling of the QLine, begun last Friday, is just the latest manifestation of forward progress. Then Monday, the Detroit Foundation Hotel — complete with its own Michelin-starred chef, Thomas Lents — opened in the old Detroit Fire Department Headquarters across Washington Boulevard from Cobo Center.

Storefronts along Woodward are showing signs of commerce, some of it decidedly upscale. The Shinola hotel is underway; building rehabs choke Capitol Park sidewalks with equipment; developers are retaining the authentic bones of downtown buildings, some more than a century old.

Kresge’s take adds just one more set of data points to what any fair-minded person reasonably could conclude: Detroit’s revitalization is for real, gaining traction and recording wins. There are hotels and condos, retail and restaurants, yet another new arena and related mixed-use development occupying some 45 city blocks west of Woodward and north of I-75.

“While the stabilization of the auto industry has played a key role in Detroit’s rebirth,” Kresge concluded, “business leaders agree that entrepreneurship and small businesses are also at the heart of the city’s resurgence.”

Added Chantel Rush, Kresge’s program officer for American cities, in an interview: Detroit entrepreneurs are “even more bullish than national business leaders. Experience begets more real optimism about the city.”

Fitting, that, because it was last century’s entrepreneurs — men with names like Ford and Durant, Mott and Kellogg, Fisher and Taubman — whose humble beginnings, innovation and grit transformed small Michigan startups into some of the world’s most prominent corporate names.

Billionaires like Penske and Gilbert long ago joined that list. They won’t be the last, if only because the reinvention of Detroit is creating a new generation of entrepreneurial change only beginning to get underway.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.