Durfee school to become a Community Innovation Center

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Correction: An earlier version of this story quoted Life Remolded CEO Chris Lambert using words that conveyed a different meaning. He intended to say that the one rule Community Innovation Center Durfee Elementary-Middle School tenants must follow is “to be passionate about building community within the building and passionate about the community outside the building.” 

Rambunctious children now run through the Durfee Elementary-Middle School halls, but next fall, fashion designers, furniture makers and farmers could be added to the mix.

Under Life Remodeled, a nonprofit that has renovated three Detroit high schools, one of Michigan’s oldest middle schools will be transformed into a mixed-use building with a Community Innovation Center this summer. The locker rooms, pool, gyms and classrooms will become makerspaces and co-working space for Detroit entrepreneurs. As a result, the 611 pre-kindergarten through eighth-graders will move into nearby Central High School, which has 350 students, and all will have an opportunity to learn from entrepreneurs in and outside the classroom.

“Instead of students learning about math in an abstract way, they might learn finance from a real case study of what’s happening in the Community Innovation Center,” says Life Remodeled CEO Chris Lambert.

The nonprofit he founded in 2011 is talking with potential Detroit-based tenants, including TechTown, Ponyride, Bamboo Detroit and Build Institute, which support entrepreneurs through education, production or co-working space.

Newly seated Detroit Public Schools Community District school board member Misha Stallworth, 28, says the planned entrepreneur mentor program will be “a good opportunity for students and families.”

The project will allow students to learn entrepreneurship “through the lens of actual entrepreneurs” and fill a “missing piece” in Detroit’s entrepreneurship boom, says Durfee Principal Ricardo Martin.

“We have not created the opportunity for kids in kindergarten through 12th grade to be able to participate in the entrepreneurial arena,” he says . “... (Now) not only kids can work side by side with entrepreneurs, but they can learn how to make mistakes. And they can learn how to correct them.”

Central’s Assistant Principal Vonetta Clark says she’s had “very contentious” conversations with parents about the schools merging and future closings. But she’s not against closing schools and repurposing buildings if it benefits the community.

“There are lots of schools that have been closed in Detroit, and they are eyesores, they’re boarded up, abandoned and they cause blight,” she says. “With Life Remodeled participating in this project, I feel a lot more comfortable they will use the building appropriately and have it be something people in the community can utilize.”

A space to create and play

The school district leased the 129,000-square-foot school built in 1927 to Life Remodeled for $1 per year. The vision for the project came from the district, Lambert says.

Central’s former principal proposed in 2015 that Life Remodeled transform the high school’s first floor into a business incubator. Lambert says the district liked the idea, but planned to consolidate Durfee and Central and foresaw space restrictions. So the school district proposed building the incubator at Durfee.

“Originally, I said no,” says Lambert, 36, of Detroit. “That’s too much of a project.”

A tour of the school changed his mind, as he saw an opportunity to “go beyond a business incubator.”

Life Remodeled’s event director Dominique Rhodes, a DPS alum, thought of the name “Community Innovation Center.”

“When you think of a business incubation center, you think of only entrepreneurs — I call them tech hipsters — that are concentrated to their little bubble, and no one else in the community is involved,” says Rhodes, 28. “So you take that concept but expand it, so they’re directly connecting and engaging with the community.”

Standing on the deck of the decaying pool — which Life Remodeled plans to renovate into a production space with an observation deck — Rhodes says a product like T-shirts could be made in the pool area.

“How cool would it be for a kid to see, ‘This is how they cut the fabric. This is how they press the shirts,’ ” she says. “And get them to think about a viable career path.”

Pointing to the creaky gym wood floor that would be replaced so sports groups could rent the facility, Lambert says the goal is to create opportunities for kids and residents, “so this is a one-stop-shop of rec center, job creation, education opportunities, community building.”

In feedback meetings with students, Rhodes says many have voiced that there’s not much to do after school.

“One of the kids at Central was like, ‘In the summer, we just walk around aimlessly because there’s no place to go,’ ” she says.

The kids have requested recreation activities, art and spanish classes. One student even asked for a credit union.

“They wanted to learn about finances and how to manage money,” Rhodes says. “A lot of really genius ideas come from the kids.”

Connecting kids and entrepreneurs

Lambert estimates Life Remodeled could operate the building on over $1 million a year. Leasable space — excluding bathrooms and storage — is about 100,000 square feet, so he figures he could charge tenants $10 per square foot to break even.

“We’re working toward an economic scenario to offer the cheapest rent that anyone would be able to find in a comparable space,” he says.

One confirmed tenant is Toarmina’s Pizza, which committed to gifting the franchise in neighborhoods with Life Remodeled projects. In Durfee’s shared cafeteria and auditorium, Lambert points to the kitchen where the pizzeria will move in.

“This will be given away for free to somebody in the city who’s passionate and ready to own it,” Lambert says.

The rest of the cafetorium could host events or a weekend farmers market, Lambert says.

Tenants must follow one rule: “(They) have to be passionate about building community within the building or passionate about the community outside the building,” he says.

Bamboo Detroit, a co-working space downtown, is interested in expanding “to reach more Detroiters,” says co-founder Amanda Lewan. “With Durfee, too, there’s a youth-focused component helping to expose high-schoolers to entrepreneurship.”

Since launching the Build Institute in 2012, which offers classes for entrepreneurs, founder April Boyle says she’s received inquiries from youth interested in entrepreneurship.

“But it really feels like it’s picking up steam this year,” says Boyle, who’s exploring options at the center.

Build is piloting a youth program and found it’s inspired kids but also parents.

“If you get to the kids first, then the parents become interested,” Boyle says. “So it’s a compounded effect, and it starts to change the culture.”

Ned Staebler, CEO of the business accelerator TechTown, says the center could introduce students to more career options.

“Frequently, people are only able to accomplish things they see their friends, family and others doing,” he says. “So providing them mentors and folks that have gotten out and done this and can provide them those pathways and possibilities is crucial.”

Staebler has entertained the idea of leasing co-working space in the center, since TechTown is getting “pretty crowded,” he says. Nothing is decided, but he supports connecting students to entrepreneurs connected to resources.

“What exactly is going to happen? Don’t know,” he says. “But I think it will be good.”

An ‘injection of hope’

Besides renovations starting in July, Life Remodeled will organize volunteers to remove blight July 31-Aug. 5 on 300 blocks surrounding the school. It will host workshops during the 50th anniversary of the 1967 riots that originated in the neighborhood.

Denise Lyles, 58, a community leader whose family has lived in the area for 65 years, says the project is a “win-win.”

“It will impact the community in a very positive manner because we’re looking at training for both children and adults (and) services for young and new entrepreneurs that wouldn’t have access to resources,” she says.

At monthly community meetings Martin says parents have expressed concerns about all grades housed in one building, but there will be staggered start and dismissal times so kindergartners won’t interact with seniors.

The elementary, middle and high school students also will be separated on Central’s three floors — which at its peak accommodated 4,000 pupils.

There will be adjustments, but Martin’s not concerned.

“This project is an injection of hope,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to renew this community.”


(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg

Life Remodeled

Community Meeting

Durfee Elementary-Middle School

2470 Collingwood, Detroit

6-8 p.m. March 17

RSVP to melissa@liferemodeled.com or call (313) 744-3052