Five Ideas From Detroit
By Stacy Mitchell on December 14, 2010
Editor's Note: A slight variation of this article has been published by Yes Magazine.
A couple of weeks ago I was invited to spend a day in Detroit meeting with local entrepreneurs and sharing ideas for spurring small business development.
Detroit is an enormously challenged city. It is the poorest big city in the U. S. Nearly one in three workers is unemployed. The city's population has shrunk to a mere 40 percent of what it once was. Vacant houses and empty lots comprise large portions of Detroit's land area.
This devastation makes all the more remarkable the new tendrils of economic activity that are emerging around the city. While these homegrown enterprises are still modest relative to the scope of Detroit's unemployment, they point the way to a promising new economy — one that is locally owned, oriented toward local needs, and capable of cultivating value from resources discarded by corporate America.
At the end of my visit, I came away feeling that Detroit has quite a bit to teach the rest of us about how to build a local economy from the ground up. Here are five ideas from Detroit that every city could benefit from.
1. Open City
Open City's founders describe it as a "support group" for aspiring and established business owners. Monthly meetings, held at Cliff Bell's, a local bar, usually draw about 100 people, roughly a quarter of whom already run a business, while the rest are toying with the idea of opening one.
Every city has its latent entrepreneurs, but this is especially the case in Detroit, where unemployment hovers near 30 percent, and lots of people daydream about inventing their own livelihoods. Most never act, though, because they don't know where to begin or how to overcome the myriad of challenges along the way.
Hoping to nudge these latent entrepreneurs along, Claire Nelson and Liz Blondy launched Open City in 2007. They had both recently started businesses — Nelson owns the retail shop Bureau for Urban Living and Blondy runs a dog daycare business called Canine to Five — and were keenly aware of how much their success had depended on the advice and encouragement of other business owners.
Nelson and Blondy designed Open City as a forum for providing that mentoring on a broader scale. Each meeting features a panel of speakers on a particular theme (see a list of this year's topics here), plus lots of time for participants to talk about their business ideas and share information and advice.