Without a Thriving Detroit, Michigan Cannot Catch that Train to Prosperity

When I attended Wayne State University in Detroit back in the mid-’80s, scattered around downtown Detroit were white pillars that supported… nothing. They looked as though they were part of a kind of ancient Roman ruin—but these pillars were brand new. They were the beginnings of Detroit’s People Mover, a raised monorail that was to take riders to various sites downtown. It was also derided as then-Mayor Coleman A. Young’s “train to nowhere,” the Motor City’s poor excuse for a mass transit system. The pillars stood alone for a few years because funding had run out in the middle of construction. At the time, these columns appeared to be emblematic of everything that was wrong with Detroit—a half-thought-out idea with no support.

But now more than ever, Detroit needs new ideas, and before they can be thought through and sufficiently supported somebody needs to start tossing them out there. Which brings me to Xconomy’s just-ended series in which we asked our Xconomists—some of the nation’s leading entrepreneurs and innovators—to answer the open-ended question: “What are five things that entrepreneurs and innovators in Michigan can do to reinvigorate their regional economy?” Of course, you cannot ask innovators to always color within the lines, so some gave us four things, others six, but all of them were insightful, provocative, even at times humorous.

But I wanted to begin by pointing out what was, unfortunately, not discussed in most cases: downtown Detroit. It is almost as if there was an unspoken assumption that there is no hope for what is perceived to be a burned-out hulk of ruins resting by the Detroit River, and all efforts at economic revival need to focus on the scattered suburban remains of that impact crater.

The sentiment is understandable. First of all, many of our Xconomists come from academia, and so might be predisposed to see Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan as the center of the area’s innovation universe. Secondly, perceptions of downtown Detroit, particularly among ex-Detroiters, often remain frozen in time during those “train-to-nowhere” days. And, thirdly, overlooking downtown is common even among those who live and work around here. The business incubators and organizations Ann Arbor SPARK and Oakland County’s Automation Alley often get larger chunks of state support than their scrappy cousin, TechTown in Detroit.

However, now that TechTown is beginning to crank out entrepreneurs and companies—thanks in large part not to state support but to out-of-state private organizations like the Kauffman Foundation—international media attention is at last focusing on at least one aspect of Detroit that is not all bad. TechTown programs like FasTrac and incubators like TechTown One and TechTown Two are deservedly getting attention not because they are any better, or more successful, than other suburban incubators. But because they are at Ground Zero. In Detroit.

I think Ann Arbor is a great little college town. I think there are some wonderful things happening there in the way of translating academic excellence into innovation and entrepreneurship. Xconomy Detroit is already filled with examples. But Ann Arbor will never be the center, the economic hub of the region. … Next Page »

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