Getting a Fresh Start

After a 2 1/2 year stint as the president of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC), Rodrick Miller, recently launched an economic development consulting firm, Ascendant Global. The firm offers a range of economic development services with a mission to support cities and regions around the country and globe in being stronger and more sustainable.  In addition to Detroit, Miller has staff in New Orleans, Louisiana; Washington, DC; Medellin, Colombia; and Atlanta Georgia and also has projects in parts of Louisiana, San Francisco and Albuquerque.
I recently sat down with Miller to discuss why he left DEGC, his latest venture and to get his thoughts on Detroit’s economic development prospects.

Lee:  Why did you leave DEGC?

Miller:  The DEGC is an amazing organization with a rich history and track record of success.  I felt that there was significant progress while there with numerous corporate relocations and expansions as well as the launch of a variety of new programs and initiatives ranging from Microsoft to Motor City Match.  The progress and growth is clear, but I felt that new leadership would be good in continuing to advance the mission of the organization at this juncture.  I am grateful for my experience there and the opportunity to be a part of Detroit’s wonderful community.

Lee:  Why launch Ascendant and why now?

Miller:  Communities around the globe are facing an array of challenges including increasing disparities between the have and have nots, low labor participation rates, inability to drive density and create demand in the urban core and the list goes on.  As I scanned the economic development consulting landscape, there were no firms that seemed to be leading strategically and tactically around issues of economic growth. Governments, economic development organizations, foundations and community groups are all trying to figure out how to increase economic opportunity, attract investment, and grow jobs.

I had been noodling on this consulting firm concept for about a year and was increasingly called upon by colleagues around the country, strategic partners and affiliations such as the International Economic Development Council, the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Kresge Foundation and others to participate in diverse fora, debates, and panels; it became apparent that there was a market for nuanced thoughtful economic development services.

Furthermore, as I talked to impressive colleagues and former associates, it was clear that others with similar passion and deep experience saw this need also and would join me on the journey. Now was definitely the time to move forward.

Lee:  Do you have a Detroit presence?  What is the firm focused on here?

Miller:  It’s great that this firm was founded in the D and has amazing staff based here.  These professionals represent some of the most talented people in our city.  James Feagin is one of the best I’ve ever met in community and neighborhood development.  He knows how to connect with neighborhood businesses and help them scale quickly and effectively. Meanwhile, Michael Forsyth is the guy behind the scenes who really constructed programs that are now becoming national models for placemaking and corridor development such as Revolve and MotorCityMatch. Then I also have Terrence Reeves, an attorney and serial entrepreneur who is tremendously talented; I’m convinced that he can solve almost any challenge that an emerging business may face.  Detroit is still home for me also.
Our work in the Detroit region is varied. Our firm is currently working with a national think tank to do a convening of elected officials from throughout the Midwest which will happen next week. This event is the first of its kind and will really showcase Detroit as a progressive city making substantial advancements in areas ranging from crime to workforce development. We’re also working with some local developers to carry out additional housing and mixed-use projects in the city.

Lee:  What are your core services being offered by Ascendant?

Miller: We offer the gamut of economic development services, but core services include:

–          Economic Competitiveness: This practice specializes in providing pointed analyses to develop industry clusters, developing overarching economic strategies based on data, best practices and community goals, and examining and redacting specific policies and incentives to assess their impacts on economic growth.

–          Disaster Recovery and Resilience:  After disasters communities are left in shocktrying to figure how to rebuild sustainably and thoughtfully.  Ascendant not only delivers practical insights into how to rebuild to ensure stability, but helps communities put in place solid policies and programs to help their economy be more resistant to disasters, natural or manmade.

–          Economic Inclusion: This practice helps communities grapple with how to ensure that marginalized communities can best participate in economic growth by developing thoughtful approaches and concrete programs to ensure that families and communities can access jobs, gain wealth, and grow into a middle-class lifestyle.  These solutions may tend to encompass workforce development, small business, and corporate engagement functions.

–          Corporate Growth: This practice is a tactical group which focuses on connecting regions, cities, and communities to private sector businesses that represent investment and new job creating potential including business attraction, business retention and expansion, ecosystem development, market positioning, and foreign direct investment and trade.

–          Real Estate and Placemaking: Ascendant helps communities understand their development potential and provides informed perspective to help communities effectively unlock latent value and achieve their desired real estate development goals through commercial district assessments, neighborhood and community development, retail, and other market analyses.

–          Organizational Development: Many organizations are engaged in economic development but are pondering how to best deliver services to gain results, optimize performance, and ensure financial sustainability.  Our team helps these organizations gain clarity around their goals, metrics, and options for achieving success.

Lee:  One of your areas of focus is disaster recovery–specifically, from economic and natural disaster. How is the firm addressing this issue??

Miller:  Our firm has deep experience in areas that have been hit hard by disaster, both man-made and natural.  We know the questions that communities need to address and many of the issues that may emerge.  So we’ve launched a practice focused on helping these communities solve their issues related to rebuilding and restoring the economic base rapidly.  Beyond that, we also recognize that equally as important as recovery is resilience, the ability to bounce back. This is something that all communities should proactively address.

There are clear measures that can be taken before an emergency related to disaster planning, public policy, and strategic investments to position a community to win and we aim to help communities thoughtfully confront these concerns on the front end.  Right now, we’re focused on identifying ways to best support coastal communities and others with post-disaster assessments and strategies and training around disaster preparedness.

Lee:  And how do businesses and communities cope with a disaster?

Miller:  There isn’t a silver bullet, but key elements of confronting a disaster involve recognizing a disaster when it strikes, acknowledging the damage and challenges, triaging the situation to put in place supports to begin to move forward, and pulling together key stakeholders around a shared path forward.

Lee:  What do you do see are the business economic opportunities in Detroit?

Miller:  Detroit remains a growth market with significant investments by major national and global firms. I am certain that these firms will continue to see the value that Detroit offers as a market that has talent and can attract additional talent, has relatively low cost real estate in comparison to other major markets, and has a boundless optimism and opportunity for future growth.   Our strong university infrastructure with Wayne State, University of Detroit-Mercy, and others continues to position us as a talent generator.

For local investors, some of the biggest opportunities may lie in local neighborhoods or contracting with major corporations locally. Although the price point for market entry in certain parts of the city has increased, there remains significant opportunity for investment and growth for retail, professional service delivery, manufacturing, and a host of businesses in neighborhoods around the city.  The time is really now for local businesses to be bullish on Detroit and local neighborhoods. There are a host of programs including Motor City Match, Motor City Re-Store, D2D, NEIdeas, Goldman Sachs 10K Small Businesses, Techtown’s SWOT City, and others to help local businesses scale and grow. Emergent small businesses should definitely examine how these programs can help them scale and take advantage of Detroit’s resurgence.

The long-term sustainability and viability of Detroit will be inexorably linked to the ability of the region to work together, make strategic investments in critical infrastructure especially around transportation, and ensure that economic inclusion is a hallmark of the comeback narrative and an intentional practice in regular business transactions.