Minority presence growing in downtown retail boom
Filling a 6,000-square-foot storefront on Woodward with merchandise was daunting for new business owner Roslyn Karamoko.
But, she says, “There’s a community of people who are rooting for the store.”
The 31-year-old African-American woman opened her clothing store and art gallery, Détroit is the New Black, in July in the heart of downtown Detroit’s blossoming shopping drag. Karamoko’s is one of a few minority- and woman-owned stores to open downtown recently.
While the number of minority businesses is growing downtown, Ken Harris, president and CEO of the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce, said African-American owned businesses in the city center are still lacking. He puts that observation in the context that 60 percent of the businesses operating inside the Detroit city limits are minority-owned.
“There’s a disconnect, when you think about it,” Harris said. There’s an entrepreneurial spirit in Detroit that’s backed by data, but people still don’t feel included in the city’s rebirth, and minority representation downtown still has a lot of room to grow.”
Karamoko’s growing brand of T-shirts, sweaters, jackets, dresses and sweatshirts emblazoned with her minimalist Détroit is the New Black logo takes center stage at the retail space. The entrepreneur and fashion designer, who started her business three years ago, originally operated from pop-up shops in the city. The permanent store sells men’s and women’s clothing, beauty products, leather goods, jewelry, locally made furniture, and art and sculpture.
She wants the store to show shoppers that big-box fashion retailers — though they might be inevitable — are not vital to downtown.
“I think Detroit is such a case study to rethink how a city is structured,” she said. “We know we can have (everything) in one shop ... it’s a model that works.”
Dan Mullen, executive vice president at Bedrock — the Dan Gilbert-owned real estate development company that owns many storefronts on Woodward, including the building that houses Détroit is the New Black — said diversity is important. But he and Bedrock don’t set out to fill a space with a certain demographic, he said.
“We’re working with everyone,” he said. “It all boils down to having a unique experience... (if the store) is something you’re not seeing every 10 feet.”
Mullen and his colleagues courted Nike, which opened at 1261 Woodward May 26. They landed the John Varvatos men’s clothing store a year before that, and Mullen turned to Karamoko when he saw the brand gaining traction in Detroit. In building up the Woodward retail scene, Mullen aims to curate stores and restaurants that will bring people downtown for an entire day.
Across Woodward from Karamoko, another African-American woman, Regina Gaines, co-owns the House of Pure Vin wine shop that opened in December. Her shop fills a Bedrock space as well.
Gaines opened as one of the only retailers on her side of the street. In 2014, when she started negotiating with Bedrock for the space, Gaines said some African-Americans didn’t feel included in the downtown boom.
Her business challenges that narrative, she said. She feels now that some of the tension has subsided since 2014, though there’s still plenty of room for better minority representation downtown.
Harris says, “We’re finding African-Americans wanting now to be part of the benefits from the resurgence of business in the city.”
She pointed to the recently announced Paradise Valley Cultural and Entertainment District, which will bring $52.4 million in development highlighting African-American arts and businesses to a section of downtown, as an indicator the city is “embracing that it is absolutely important that we be inclusive.”
She also cites the push for a community benefits agreement that gives city residents the power to enforce legal requirements of developers with major investments to assure things like job opportunities and affordable housing for Detroit residents. On the ballot in November will be two community benefits agreement proposals, one of which will put more power in the hands of Detroiters.
Gaines has faith in Detroit small businesses. Detroit has always nurtured small business and entrepreneurs, the wine shop co-owner said.
“We’ve been great at building brands here,” she said. “The small-business model has always been important. ... There are opportunities for (minority business owners). ... Our city has a brand loyalty for the small businesses more than anybody else.
“We know what it’s like when (big) companies leave.”
Jill Ford, head of innovation and entrepreneurship for Detroit, said the city is making an effort to support local brands.
She pointed to the Motor City Match, a city-backed program that awards $500,000 each quarter in grants and assistance to small businesses, as well as other programs that support small businesses as well as minority-owned businesses. And these businesses can stand beside big-name retailers in Detroit because the community turns out to support local brands.
“I’d like to think there’s a spotlight that is on our retailers throughout the city,” Ford said. “I see great potential for the brands we’re building.