By Nancy Kaffer | Crain’s Detroit Business
The growth of Midtown Detroit gets a lot of attention, but businesses in the city’s three industrial clusters employ, collectively, the same number of workers.
That’s the kind of finding that the Detroit Works Project and city economic developers hope can guide private and public sector investment, improving the number of jobs and businesses in the city.
The Detroit Works Project is Detroit Mayor Dave Bing’s signature policy piece.
The idea is to create a framework that reflects the city’s new reality: a 139-square-mile city, built for 2 million people, but currently housing 713,777 residents and a proportionally declining number of businesses.
Detroit Works has spent almost two years gathering data and is now soliciting community feedback from business stakeholders, residents and others.
Organizers say collecting and publicizing this kind of detailed information is an important part of the revitalization of Detroit. Knowing where existing businesses — and jobs — are concentrated can help guide the private investment necessary to create more jobs.
The framework, which can be used to generate those guidelines for investment, new zoning designations and can inform the city’s master plan, will be released at the end of October.
“Employment growth is as important as population growth for the future of Detroit,” said Teresa Lynch, senior vice president of research at the Boston-based Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, consultants for the Detroit Works Project’s long-term planning effort.
“The quality of life for residents of Detroit … has always been the north star of the project. But when we realized how important employment growth was going to be, we realized we needed a parallel set of ideas about the quality of the business environment.
“Detroit has to become a city that attracts businesses as much as it becomes a city where people want to live.”
The ICIC identified seven employment districts across the city: non-industrial districts in downtown, Midtown, the McNichols corridor near the University of Detroit-Mercy and Corktown, and industrial corridors along Mt. Elliott, Dequindre-Eastern Market and in Southwest Detroit.
“It helps us tell the story better about why we’re pursuing the strategies we’re pursuing,” said Olga Stella, vice president of business development at the Detroit Economic Growth Corp.
Industrial land in Detroit, she said, needs to be consolidated into larger sites, and needs investment and improved marketing.
There are about 180,000 private sector jobs in the city, and another roughly 30,000 government jobs, including jobs at medical institutions, Lynch said, but those jobs aren’t necessarily held by Detroiters.
The city’s density of jobs-to-residents lags peer cities substantially, she said.
Because Detroit residents also tend to lag national numbers in key employability metrics like holding high school or college degrees, it’s important to create jobs that suit people with a variety of backgrounds, Lynch said.
For example, she said, high-tech jobs get a lot of buzz, but a range of positions are needed to match employer demand and the pool of available workers.
The ICIC work shows that for Detroit it’s really a balance between industry, high tech and eds and meds kinds of jobs,” Stella said.
The data also highlight the number of business-to-business companies in the city, Lynch said.
Increasing inter-city purchasing is another key DEGC goal, Stella said.
She said that the strategies that have been used so successfully in downtown and Midtown must be used in the city’s other employment districts.
Part of that means lining up city or state departments that supplement business efforts, like Building, Safety and Engineering for blight removal, the Department of Public Works and the Michigan Department of Transportation for road and infrastructure maintenance.
Detroit Works is soliciting feedback from members of the community, including Detroit business owners.
The project and its goals make sense, said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber.
“Overall, I think it’s a win, and it’s a pretty important win, because to get where you want to go you need a roadmap to get there,” he said. “Let’s develop specific outreach programs to drive basic infrastructure. …
“Since Detroit is so large, its footprint is so large, having these kinds of defined focuses for areas is hugely, hugely important.”
But how to get the business community to buy in?
“It is a combination of carrots and sticks,” Baurah said. “There’s the power of persuasion — (if the DEGC has) the help of Detroit Works, it helps create a vision for potential business investors, businesses to relocate to a particular area for a particular purpose … the very smart work being done by Detroit Works makes it more compelling.”
Then there’s the stick.
“Some things the city can do … they can look at zoning ordinances, zone particular areas to better bolster the kind of development they’re looking for,” Baurah said.
“The next step would be when the city gets a little bit healthier, are there tax incentives or economic development incentives that would encourage investment in particular places?”
Project advocates could face other challenges in seeking input, especially from the business community, Baruah said.
“A lot of things happened outside of the public view, and people weren’t sure what it was or whether it was worth engaging with, or even how to engage,” he said.
“It turns out they (Detroit Works) were doing some very important work, but to residents, to business owners, to stakeholders in the region, it’s probably not as aggressive as it could have been.
“But that can all be fixed. Now that they’re at the point where they can deliver some findings, this can be fixed.”
“There needs to be community buy-in,” said Dan Gilmartin, executive director of the Michigan Municipal League. “The community, the mayor’s office, everybody involved in it has to be more involved on the ground than they have been. … The civic engagement aspect of this is what will make or break it.”
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