Berman: World watches as Detroit works on its problems

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

If the U.S. Department of State’s Detroit delegation to a Tunisian business conference this week doesn’t improve diplomatic relations between our two nations, it might rightfully seduce Hollywood with its adorably offbeat casting.

There’s member Jerry Paffendorf, for example, the leader of high-tech Detroit mapping company Loveland Technologies, whose official bio describes him as “an American mutt” and high school dropout who arrived in Detroit in 2009 to launch his company. Or Amy Kaherl, who leads Detroit SOUP, which ladles out soup and micro-grants to local inventors and creators who present winning project ideas at monthly dinners.

Charles Rivkin, an assistant secretary of state, is leading the delegation. He combines diplomatic pedigree (his father was a three-time U.S. ambassador; Charles Rivkin won plaudits as Obama’s ambassador to France) with creative business acumen: Rivkin piloted the Jim Henson Company 15 years ago, and later distinguished himself as a fundraiser for presidential candidates John Kerry and Barack Obama.

Now he and his Detroit creative class delegation are landing in Tunisia, a North African outpost of democratic leanings, that he says can benefit from Detroit’s recent history of innovation and entrepreneurship.

During an interview in City Hall, where Rivkin met earlier with Mayor Mike Duggan, he said that Tunisian small businesses can learn from Detroit’s example, citing Detroit SOUP’s “crowd-funding model,” as one that could translate directly to Tunisia.

Tunisia, which shares borders with Libya and Algeria, is a strategically placed ally that has a growing economy and a politically unstable government. Rivkin, who showed off the new Shinola watch he bought here last week, also invited Jacques Panis, Shinola’s president, to join the Tunisian trip. Panis agreed on the spot.

Other delegates are Matthew Clayson, director of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center; Paul Riser Jr. of TechTown; and Ahmed M. Ezzeddine, a Wayne State University official.

These aren’t Detroit’s traditional titans of industry. But they are a few of the creative innovators, and their advocates, who helped focus attention on Detroit as a laboratory for new ways of generating ideas and businesses when housing values were collapsing and bank capital dried up.

Now they’re acting as ambassadors for small business — the kind that can get by on nimble thinking, limited resources and a willingness to experiment with new ideas.

Rivkin’s delegation also includes Julie M. Egan, a state department expert in North African economic affairs whose latest appointment moves her from Washington, D.C.: Her new posting is to Detroit.

She’ll be here to assist Cliff Kellogg, the executive director of the White House Detroit working group, a layer of federal oversight, that includes representatives from four federal departments. The bankruptcy is officially over, but instead of walking away from Detroit, the White House is hovering like a helicopter parent.

Whether that presence is ultimately helpful or tantamount to window dressing is a guess for now. But Detroit’s Chapter 9 experience surely taught us one valuable lesson: Oversight from government, media and the courts — a sense that the whole world is watching — helped cut through dissension and pettiness and enabled various interest groups to create a workable plan for the city’s future. A little more attention couldn’t hurt.

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