Panel: Black business people in Detroit must 'control our own' neighborhoods
Detroit — Panelists in a webinar hosted by the Detroit chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists agreed Saturday that black people have too little equity and too little ownership in Detroit, a city that's 80% black.
"Equity is about what we do for ourselves," said panelist Moses Shepherd, CEO of Ace Petroleum. "We are not going to get the help."
Rudy Harper, a reporter for WXYZ-TV, moderated the hour-long discussion with the men, who represented the world of business, real estate and media. The webinar was part of the association's Black Male Media Project.
Shepherd's company only opened for business in 2017, but in January earned a five-year contract to serve as the exclusive fuel provider for the city of Detroit.
"The city's confidence in our abilities to deliver the comprehensive fuel services needed to support, protect and serve Detroiters is rewarding and validates our efforts," Shepherd said when the contract was announced.
Shepherd is also a property owner in Detroit whose portfolio includes 400 single-family homes and multiple apartment buildings.
He learned years ago that it's easier to do business in the neighborhoods than it is downtown. Shepherd said that despite a purchase agreement for a prominent building on Woodward Avenue, it was sold to someone else for $250,000 less than he had offered.
He refocused his energies to northwest Detroit, including Rosedale Park, Grandmont-Rosedale, and the Seven Mile and Livernois area.
"When they try to come buy apartment buildings in the neighborhoods, they'll have to come and see me," Shepherd said.
Ron Bartell, owner of Kuzzo's Chicken & Waffles on the Avenue of Fashion in Livernois, and owner of commercial properties in the area, said that he bought a number of properties with cash in Midtown after returning to Detroit in 2011.
But he found bank financing tough to come by.
"The political games you have to play, it's overbearing," Bartell said.
So he, too, shifted to focus on the neighborhoods. In one commercial strip, Bartell has four black businesses about to move in, including a beauty supply store.
“Let’s control our own, and bring resources and partnerships together and cut out the middle man," Bartell said.
Theo McNeal, CEO of the Building More with Theodore real estate design firm, quoted a friend who compared the lack of black ownership of property in America to "playing 400 rounds of Monopoly, and losing them all."
"We have people not native to the area who are buying up and flipping a lot of properties," McNeal said. "They make cheap fixes and rent them out or sell them. To have a sense of pride in our community, we would have to have ownership. But we were never taught the tools of financial literacy."
Participating from New York was Tyler Clifford, a writer and web producer for CNBC, and nephew to anchor Carolyn Clifford of WXYZ-TV.
Clifford said Detroit has been troubled with "dereliction by design," as when the Ilitch family bought parcels of land in the Cass Corridor for decades and sat on it as the area hollowed out.
A Detroit News analysis in Oct. 2019 found that it's not just land near Little Caesars Arena that remains undeveloped by the Ilitch organization, but that it has "blocks of unused properties near their other prominent venues, stretching from downtown to Midtown/Cass Corridor to North Corktown."
In the end, the Ilitch company was given $344 million in taxpayer funds to build Little Caesars Arena on Cass.
"I drive through neighborhoods and see empty blocks of land and see (speculators are) waiting for that moment" to sell and make a profit, Harper said.
Harper asked the panelists what they do to secure their mental health, what with the coronavirus, its impact on their livelihoods, and a time of tumult that has seen Detroiters rally and march in the streets to oppose police brutality for eight days straight.
The protests, which are being held nationwide, are in response to the death of George Floyd during his Memorial Day arrest by Minneapolis police.
The protests are not just about one fatal interaction, Clifford said.
"These are decades and centuries of things that have built up, and reached a tipping point," Clifford said. "Journalists are supposed to be objective and not put ourselves in the story, but it’s hard to not see ourselves in those shoes, like that could happen to us."