Detroit continues to be under the spotlight regarding economic and investment opportunities. From investments in entrepreneurial programs to the recent Flex-n-Gate announcement on the city’s east side, economic development opportunities continue to have a major role in stimulating Detroit’s revitalization efforts.
However, if the city is to experience a total renaissance and continue to strive for its potential, more needs to be done.
The Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC) is a non-profit organization that serves as the lead implementing agency for business retention, attraction and economic development initiatives in the city of Detroit. Working directly with other city, community and regional stakeholders, DEGC leverages its collective expertise and innovation to advance a sustainable, robust, and inclusive economy and is led by a 58-member board comprised of business, civic, labor and community leaders.
Rodrick T. Miller, President & CEO, arrived in the Motor City from New Orleans a couple of years ago where he served as the founding president of the New Orleans Alliance Business. In that role, Miller was responsible for ensuring long-term economic vitality and driving job growth for New Orleans.
I recently spent time with him to discuss his thoughts on Detroit’s economic development efforts, overall challenges and his vision for the agency’s future.
Lee: You’ve been with the DEGC for nearly two years. Has it been what you expected?
Miller: The commitment to progress among Detroit’s many stakeholders is much stronger than I would have imagined. It’s remarkable to witness how many people from such a broad range of circumstances are working really hard to become involved in building a better Detroit. The variety of perspectives aimed at Detroit’s economic development right now is invaluable – it’s really what’s driving the innovation and creativity that sets Detroit’s resurgence apart from what other cities have experienced. On the flip side, some of the chasms between different communities run deeper than I anticipated they would.
However, the spirit of collaboration I’ve encountered here gives me hope that we’ll find approaches to development that invite everyone to the table and where everyone benefits. There is an incredible resiliency among the people here. Detroiters have persevered despite decades of decline, and yet they’re still pushing forward. I knew Detroiters were tough, but I’m incredibly impressed by the depth of this city’s resolve to build a better home.
Lee: How do Detroit’s economic challenges (ED) compare to New Orleans?
Miller: There is a widespread misperception that New Orleans’ economic decline was a result of Hurricane Katrina. Katrina wounded New Orleans immeasurably, but New Orleans was in a state of economic decline for 40 years before Hurricane Katrina struck. The city faced decades of ongoing population decline. There was a major retrenchment of Louisiana’s oil sector and notable reliance on the tourism industry. Katrina fast-tracked the decline that was already in place and elevated New Orleans’ struggles with poverty and income inequality to the world stage. This cataclysmic event made new development absolutely essential, and it also raised a looking glass for New Orleans and the rest of the country to think about what equitable, sustainable redevelopment looks like.
You can draw parallels to Detroit. Both cities have huge minority populations and a proud cultural heritage. Both have struggled with out-migration and poverty over a long period of time. In both cases, there was an historical over-dependence on one industry and reliance on institutions to drive change.
Katrina was the transformative event that drove large-scale change in New Orleans – a change that they’re still navigating more than ten years later. While not on the same scale as a natural disaster like Katrina, Detroit’s long-term economic decline also culminated in a capstone event that drew national attention and facilitated change. Detroit’s bankruptcy really was the last straw. I would argue, however, that the economic bailout of the automotive companies was the pre-cursor to bankruptcy. There was a lot of foreshadowing for Detroit’s descent into bankruptcy. No one could have predicted Katrina.
Lee: Coming from New Orleans, what’s your take on Detroit, ED opportunities and challenges still confronting this city and region?
Miller: Part of what has driven New Orleans’ recovery has been a cohesive business leadership strategy and a clear political path. The culture in New Orleans is steeped in social consciousness. That’s true of Detroit also, but we’re just now feeling the progress of that coming along. Keep in mind that Detroit emerged from bankruptcy officially just about eighteen months ago. It’s going to take time for the effect of recovery efforts to be felt, and these efforts will need retooling and refinement over a long time to ensure stability.
Detroit’s low cost of living has created a climate where entrepreneurialism and small business can thrive and drive major change. I think this is important because the small business community is creating opportunity throughout the entire city – downtown and in our neighborhoods. Detroit also has benefitted from major investors like Dan Gilbert who have stepped up to bat in a way that is truly redefining the possibilities.
Lee: What is DEGC’s vision over the next three to five years?
Interest in Detroit is at an all-time high, and the scale of investment in Detroit today is massive. Our economic recovery is real. The opportunity is here. The challenge is ensuring participation for all Detroiters, which is not just a question of economic development. It’s about quality of life. We’re seeing this improve with Mayor Duggan’s work to restore basic services and improve safety and infrastructure. Bringing native and new Detroiters together to talk about change and build opportunity is an important next step.
I think I’d like to see DEGC focus our three to five-year vision on those conversations and on building projects focused on foundational strength in addition to nearer-term gain. We should work toward strategies defining what the market actually is and where it should go beyond just transactional events. This includes working with corporate leadership to strengthen our market position, and developing sectoral strategies for business development. We also need to leverage the city’s real estate assets to attract new companies while building out our approach to retaining the companies that have already invested in Detroit. Of course, DEGC will work to support the Mayor’s vision for growing Detroit’s population base and creating more jobs for Detroiters.
Lee: How are the support and collaboration efforts between DEGC and the business community? Mayor’s office? Other entities?
Miller: I think we have to acknowledge that today’s economic climate is different from any that Detroit has ever had. We’re experiencing the high levels of direct investment and a dynamic model of economic development. We have to keep in mind also how Detroit fits into the regional and statewide landscape. Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) is reinventing itself, as is Detroit Regional Chamber (DRC) to a certain degree. DEGC has undergone a lot of change in the last 18 months. This is a lot of reinvention occurring for multiple partners at the same time, and it calls all of us to make adjustments.
This is all critical in shaping current collaboration efforts and Detroit’s long-term prospects. Mayor Duggan’s active role in economic development is hugely important, and we appreciate his influence as we work in concert to deliver results. But it’s more art than science, and you can’t rush a masterpiece. We all bring different assets and perspectives to the table that I believe will make for a richer landscape with more opportunity and more innovation. It’s important that we look outward also and learn from what other cities have accomplished, borrowing the elements that work for Detroit and crafting new approaches specific to our situation. We’re always learning at DEGC, and the current Administration and Detroit’s business community seem very receptive to that.
Lee: Many think of DEGC as primarily focused on acquiring and developing real estate downtown. However, its primary emphasis is economic development. How do you define ED and how do close this perceptual gap?
Miller: That’s a perception of DEGC that I’d definitely like to change. I think it’s a function of the fact that many of the big downtown deals and large scale projects make headlines. And they should make headlines. These projects involve iconic spaces and entities that Detroiters care for deeply, and they’re transformative to the downtown landscape. But for all of the blood, sweat and tears DEGC invests in Little Caesar’s Arena, The District, Hudson’s, etc, we put just as much passion and dedication into projects like the Mt. Elliot Employment District where we’ve engaged community leaders to discuss issues of noise, traffic, and transportation to and from the jobs being created there. We’re very excited to have played a role in the Flex-n-Gate/Ford development project that EDA just approved in May, which could create as many as 650 jobs in the I-94 Industrial Park.
Lee: There is a perception it’s the primary focus is downtown, what are the plans for expanding beyond and into other parts of Detroit?
Miller: As I mentioned, Downtown and Midtown attract a lot of attention because of the scale of the projects – the investment in the arena district now is approaching $1 billion in a 45-block area. That’s hard to ignore. And those investments generate jobs – not just in Downtown, but in the neighborhoods where Detroit-based construction or service companies are located.
Lee: There’s been significant discussion regarding downtown versus neighborhood ED opportunities. What are you thoughts?
Miller: We work to create opportunity wherever we can, because quite frankly, Detroit needs more opportunity everywhere. DEGC’s focus really has to be on the whole city, because all parts of our city need our attention. We’re seeing increased development downtown, but we still need more. We’re still scaling up to keep pace with other major U.S. cities.
At the same token, our neighborhoods need a lot. I think it’s up to us to better understand development needs and strategies as they’re specific to each unique part of the city, recognizing that we can’t succeed in one sector without the others. I view our downtown as the heart of Detroit and our neighborhoods as the soul. Both make us who we are as a community, and both contribute to our overall health.
Lee: Small businesses continue to open across Detroit. How does DEGC support small businesses?
Miller: Within the last year, we’ve invested time and effort into really building out our small business team and strategies. We’ve hired Mike Rafferty as our Vice President for Small Business, and he and our small business team are fantastic ambassadors for small business and entrepreneurialism. Through their dedication, we’re deeply involved in programs such as Motor City Match, D2D and Green Grocer Project. Motor City Match assists small businesses from concept to implementation and awards $500,000 in grant funding every quarter to Detroit businesses. D2D seeks to connect Detroit companies with local suppliers to build a community of strong businesses that support each other’s economic successes. Green Grocer Project has helped create competitive, sustainable grocery offerings in Detroit by providing technical assistance, façade improvement and loans for other store improvements. All of these identify and fill gaps in Detroit’s small business eco-system. Our focus here is on our neighborhoods, both in coordinating small business partners around the city and in supporting small business directly.
DEGC also is involved with an array of projects that might not seem to fit under the traditional definition of an economic development organization. For example, our brownfield redevelopment program is a national leader. Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority (DBRA) has facilitated the approval of over 198 plans for Brownfield redevelopment including residential, mixed-use, retail, office and commercial uses. Once completed, these plans are expected to create approximately $6.7 billion in new investment, 18,500 jobs, and over 10,000 housing units in the City of Detroit.
Lee: Detroit is still in need for jobs. From DEGC’s perspective, how is this being addressed?
Miller: For one, there simply are not enough jobs in Detroit, and part of the solution to that is attracting new employers from a variety of industries that offer work at family-sustaining wages. We should refine Detroit’s business attraction strategy to bring new companies focused on targeted industries, and we also should work to provide more help to the companies who are already here. We also must work closely with our existing corporate base to identify more opportunities along their supply chain. This approach was a major success with Flex-n-Gate/Ford.
As a community, we also have to address issues that prevent Detroiters from accessing the jobs that do exist in the city and throughout the region. Opportunities for work in IT, health care and advance manufacturing are growing. These jobs offer career ladders in the sense that potential employees can on-ramp at an entry or mid-level position and find steady opportunities for professional growth and wage increases. We need more Detroiters in these types of jobs, but we have to address the education and transportation barriers that prevent full access. There is tremendous need for adult education and training within Detroit’s workforce. This is critical both to improving quality of life for Detroiters and also growing our prospects for attracting new employers.
For more information, please go to: www.degc.org