Best Business By Shea Howell

Thinking for ourselves

Best Business

By Shea Howell

 Forbes Magazine featured Detroit as one of the 25 “Best Places for Business” in the United States. With Mayor Dave Bing gracing the cover, the July 18th edition begins: “Anybody who takes a moment to stop spewing outdated cliches about the city would see that Detroit right now really is a land of opportunity. The barriers to entry for business are fairly low, and getting lower. Real estate is cheap, there’s an abundance of skilled workers seeking jobs, and the business tax structure has improved dramatically under new Gov. Rick Snyder.”

 Instead of dwelling on a familiar litany of numbers to show how bad our city is, Forbes highlights two key areas: “the number of college-educated people under 35 living within 3 miles of downtown grew by 59%. And the manufacturing industry is adding jobs at a rapid clip, contrary to what’s happening in other industries.”

This renewed interest in Detroit by business, combined with the effort to direct Federal dollars more efficiently and foundation spending all indicate that much needed new economic activity will accelerate.

At the same time it raises a challenge to us to all think very differently about what kind of an economy we want. The last century has given us ample lessons of what to avoid, but the harder question of what a vibrant local, sustainable economy looks like is pressing in on us.

The Mayor and the City Council need to do some serious thinking about the kinds of public policies to put in place to foster a healthy economy that builds on the people and strengths of our city.

One of our greatest strengths is the collaborative nature of our locally based small businesses. Toby Barlow of the New York Times wrote an article almost two years before Forbes discovered our “business climate,” entitled “It takes a Village to Open a Bistro.” Barlow tells the story of Charles Sorel’s Le Petit Zinc, its opening and the support it received from other established small businesses.

He comments on this unusual relationship. “Now, we are all raised to think of business as a sort of vicious spy-versus-spy, cutthroat activity where every competing establishment is out to stick a shiv into the other. You’d think that this kind of blood thirst would be even worse in Detroit, which — with Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance, Eminem’s lyrics and our old, quaint Devil’s Night tradition of burning down houses — has acquired a certain reputation for toughness. But … the neighboring Detroit restaurants actually had quite a different reaction to a new competitor.”

Instead of seeing a new business as a threat, other local businesses did all they could to help Sorel, assisting with permits, equipment and supplies. Even Torya Blanchard whose downtown crêpe place called Good Girls Go to Paris could be seen as a direct competitor, “happily exchanged recipes… even coming in one day to help make his batter, an act of crêperie solidarity that would surely have made Detroit’s founder, Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac, extremely proud.”

“They want their neighbor to make it,” he says. “It’s different from anywhere I’ve been. Here, your success is their success.”

Barlow concludes his article saying, “Maybe it’s that adage that nothing brings a community closer than having a common enemy. For the restaurateurs, the residents, the urban farmers and the community activists now working to reshape the city, the enemy is Detroit’s own reputation. They know they will succeed only if they are a part of a larger, collective success, one that makes downtown a thriving destination again, and so they’re working together to make it happen.”

The values of cooperation, collaboration, local production and consumption are the cornerstones of any sustainable future. These values, already shaping much of our street life, need to be emphasized and supported.

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