A perspective on Detroit, from a once Detroiter, now Chicagoan

Much has been made about Detroit’s past and its current transformation — a city striving to diversify and redefine itself.

Transformation is difficult, particularly when your foundation has been somewhat shaken. Detroit’s core, the automotive industry, has been shaken, but not broken. However, as Detroit continues its transformation, economic development is critical to longer term success and sustainability.

Additionally, much has been made of the importance of keeping young people in this area and what it takes to keep talented people in Southeastern Michigan.

My son, Cameron S. Lee, is a 23-year-old young professional who grew up in the Detroit area, but now lives in Chicago. Small Talk asked him for his thoughts on Detroit, economic development and entrepreneurship and how these critical elements impact the city’s future.

A graduate of Canton High School and Northwestern University, Cameron moved to Metro Detroit when he was young and has always felt a unique connection to the region. Through his involvement in the city, he has developed a solid understanding of Detroit’s colorful history which has always made him proud to support the area.

Smart Talk: How did you get interested in economic development?

Cameron Lee: While studying in college, I took a Social Policy class related to the ways in which social and economic policies affect people and their communities. The class presented the perfect opportunity for me to learn how cities like Chicago and New York functioned in a way that put their regions on the cutting edge of urban development.

ST: What are your thoughts on economic development for Detroit?

Detroit has a prime opportunity to return to its roots as a leading economic city, should the region begin to work cohesively. Economic development can simply start with an increase in business opportunities and social events that bring visitors and serious investors to the city. Favorable economic policy will be imperative to the city’s rebirth. Strong, diverse industries attract power-brokers to the city, and provide added reason for bright students from the state’s great universities to keep their talents in Michigan.
ST: What ideas do you have to stimulate development in Detroit?

Detroit must brand itself as a destination that people aspire to reach. With this in mind, Detroit must work with the state to create a favorable economic tax structure which provides incentives that attract small businesses and private investors alike. For example, the film industry doesn’t just bring performers, but also tech workers, set-builders, event caterers and so on down the line. Detroit must provide economic incentives that are impossible to pass up.

ST: What role does entrepreneurship have in stimulating development?

Entrepreneurship is the foundation of economic growth. Small-business owners are the heart of neighborhood development because they represent the best that our communities have to offer. Entrepreneurs create local jobs and increased revenue within our communities.

ST: You’re a young person living in Chicago, why do you have such a keen interest in Detroit and its future?

Detroit has always been a sister-city to the Windy City. The two cities have historically been demographically similar in population and economic approach, and were both heavily dependent on manufacturing. However, Chicago has done an exceptional job of reinvesting in its neighborhoods and attracting innovators. While Chicago remains a manufacturing center and has diversified its revenue base. Detroit has a similar pedigree, but must move beyond its reliance on the manufacturing industry to get there.

ST: What has Chicago done and how can Detroit model itself after their success?

Simply put, Chicago has reinvested in itself, which has paid great dividends. Chicago continues to attract diverse industries that provide attractive job opportunities for students from schools like Northwestern University, the University of Chicago and other area institutions. Chicago has also increased its population density, which has increased productivity and provided exceptional public services. Detroit must focus on attracting cutting edge companies like consulting and software firms because they will entice young people from the great schools from around the state.

ST: What are your hopes for Detroit’s future?

My hope is that Detroit consolidates its residential presence while maintaining its current city limits. Finding a way to increase city density by putting more city residents into the same general area will not only make it easier to keep people safe, but it will allow for new economic zones to pop-up in those non-residential areas. As a result, economic prosperity will slowly move in.

ST: How does the city engage young people in determining its future–whether, living and working here, developing small businesses and/or investing in the Motor City’s future?

First and foremost, Metro Detroiters must take their place in the region’s success. The area needs to stop population bleeding by encouraging its residents to stay. From there, City Council must engage in productive discussions with government officials that build an environment conducive to growth. A major starting point will be balancing the budget and a renewed focus on residential areas.
ST: From your perspective, how would you brand Detroit in the future?

Detroit must brand itself as an innovative city that will be the catalyst for their long term success. The city needs to increasingly its market cultural experiences such as museums, historical structures while working with area leaders to create places where safe destinations for people. The more of a destination that Detroit becomes, the easier it will be to convince outsiders not only to invest in, but to stay in the area.

Other thoughts?

Detroit must focus on attracting outside investment. Outside investors will bring unique, diverse ideas to a region ready for innovation. With that being said, the city must not rely on a handful of investors, but many individuals, because the capital and cultural infusions will help the city to become an economic and cultural mecca. Attracting a variety of individual business investors increases the likelihood that community business leaders and residents alike will adopt a collective responsibility for their own city’s success.