DEGC to pursue more aggressive foreign outreach

Breana Noble
The Detroit News
Detroit Economic Growth Corp. CEO Kevin Johnson says he plans to promote growth for Detroit businesses through more trips abroad to place with high-growth potential such as Central and South America and Southeast Asia.

Detroit — The Detroit Economic Growth Corp.'s new CEO said Thursday the nonprofit will be working more aggressively to promote Detroit for trade in places such as Central and South America and Southeast Asia.

Kevin Johnson, in his fourth month leading the 40-year-old group, outlined his plans to more aggressively attract investment to the city. Back from a trade mission trip to China with Gov. Rick Snyder and the Michigan Economic Development Corp., Johnson said he sees traveling to places of opportunity as a main way in which Detroit can grow.

"We have to make sure they know we exist," Johnson told the Downtown Detroit Partnership's fall stakeholder meeting at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel. "I'm not so sure that places on a high-growth trajectory are aware of just how dynamic Detroit is. That's something we need to change."

Johnson identified Africa, Central and South America, Europe and Southeast Asia as areas of interest for the nonprofit. In particular, he said his staff is working on identifying places with high-growth potential and large populations. He sees opportunities in areas whose burgeoning expertise align with "cluster" strengths of Detroit such as mobility, advanced manufacturing, innovation and technology, health and food.

"Do you know how many people live in Southeast Asia?" Johnson said. "Seven hundred million. ... That's a lot of mouths to feed, and a lot of cars to sell, and a lot to export around the world. We need to go in and open those markets."

Inspired by his previous experience as the senior vice president of economic development at Invest Atlanta, that city's economic development authority, Johnson said he hopes to take at least three trips abroad per year to promote the city for investment, though he said members of staff will travel as many times as the group needs if the opportunity arises.

"I am an unapologetic globalist," Johnson said. "This city, more than others, depends on global supply chains."

In China, Johnson said investors recognize Michigan and Detroit as the capital of autonomous and electric vehicles and that they want to do business here. Tariffs, however, are an obstacle, and Johnson said the focus needs to be on having a trained workforce, the proper properties and buildings and policies that reduce barriers of entry.

Additionally, he said the growth corporation will work more aggressively to acquire land and properties with a focus on industrial development so that the city is more prepared with options for potential investors.

The Downtown Detroit Partnership also highlighted more than 20 projects in the central business district that represent more than $1.54 billion in investment and nearly 3.5 million-square-feet of commercial and residential space.

The partnership's CEO, Eric Larson, said it is developing a digital 3D map of Detroit's downtown with local and national technology firms. Right now in beta testing, the map will be open to the public online and allow users to zoom into particular buildings for more details. Larson said the partnership and other groups such as the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. will use the map to market the downtown.

"We are looking at really creative ways and taking the information that is out there," Larson said, "and we are basically trying to find ways that we can in real time tell the story of progress."