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Could we be on the edge of Detroit's new entrepreneurial age?

Daniel Howes
Detroit News

After nearly 20 years of waiting, nostalgia-mad Detroit got what it’s long been waiting for. Mortgage mogul Dan Gilbert, architect of downtown’s revival, cut the ribbon on the site of the ol’ J.L. Hudson’s store.

It’ll be a, quote, “city within a city.” It’ll be a “vertical” statement. It’ll be the tallest building in Detroit, overtaking that one built by the last pair of heavyweights who aimed to change the city's direction by sheer force of will.

Max Fisher and Al Taubman meant well with the Renaissance Center. But their timing stunk. Gilbert? Not so much.

The guy who built Quicken Loans into an online colossus is creating an entrepreneurial tidal wave like this city hasn’t seen since before World War II. Start-ups are cool. Venture capital is hungry. More people want in, and there’s growing evidence that careful money no longer wants to sit on the sidelines while guys like Gilbert get all the action.

Within hours of Thursday’s ribbon cutting at the Hudson’s site, the chairman of JP Morgan Chase and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan presided over a small panel discussion on a fund called “Entrepreneurs of Color.” It’s a mere five million bucks that the Detroit Development Fund doles out to worthy projects – projects that enable Detroiters to hire Detroiters to serve Detroiters.

It’s got big money behind it because creating small business can be key to jump-starting economic revival in neighborhoods that are far from the bustle in downtown and Midtown.

Take Felicia Maxwell's Fit4Life on McNichols. It's backed by the Entrepreneurs’ fund and can be every bit as transformative as one of Gilbert’s mega-projects. They both symbolize the economic reawakening of Detroit, an embrace of business in a town that loved it and hated it at the same time, an understanding that commerce is often more likely to improve lives and build communities – not politics.

How refreshing.

And what a circle of history it is.

A century ago, entrepreneurs with names like Ford and Hudson, Kresge and Kellogg, Dow and Durant built their start-ups into corporate giants that underpinned modern Michigan. They mined its riches and geography, eventually building a powerhouse industry that put the world on wheels and defined Detroit – for good and not so good.

Could we be on the precipice of Detroit’s new entrepreneurial age?

Where the mayors past bulldozed ethnic neighborhoods to win an auto plant or chased casinos to land Detroit’s next economic savior, today’s mayor works business and philanthropy to fund small business, to reinvest in neighborhoods, to look for the next Dan Gilbert, and to back her.

For the past century, through good and a whole lot of bad, Detroit was a business town. Big business, global business, paternal business that took care of its people … often a little too well.

The beginning of the next century is bringing something different. It’s more Silicon Valley than Old Detroit, more self-reliant and less dependent on someone else to make the hard decisions and make payroll.

It’s the evolution of a New Detroit. And it’s evolving more each week.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

Daniel Howes is columnist and associate business editor of The Detroit News. A former European correspondent for The News, he has reported from nearly 25 countries on three continents and in the Middle East. Before heading to Europe in 1999, Howes was senior automotive writer and a business projects writer. He is a frequent contributor to NewsTalk 760-WJR in Detroit and a weekly contributor to Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor.
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