Is Motor City “Running on Empty” Or Are Reports of Detroit’s Demise Greatly Exaggerated?

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Despite all the talk of decline, there are brighter spots on Detroit’s horizon.  Last week, Crain’s Detroit Business projected job growth for Southeast Michigan “for the first time in more than a decade,” and reported, “slow and steady is the way economists predict metro Detroit and Michigan will emerge from the economic abyss we were looking into two years ago.”

Detroit’s only remaining auto assembly plants are chugging away.  “They’ve got new product, and they’re doing pretty well,” said Boyle.  “One makes the Chevy Volt, GM’s new hybrid, and the other [makes] Chrysler’s Jeep Grand Cherokee.”

Meanwhile, the national business press is highlighting Detroit’s brighter side.  Inc. Magazine lists five reasons to start a business there: 1) Innovation is in the air, 2) Training and support abound, 3) A vibrant support network exists, 4) There’s access to space, leadership, and capital, and 5) Government support is plentiful.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Detroit has cheap housing and loads of physical capital.  There are — perhaps it’s more accurate to say, there were — 4,000 factories in the area.

Internet megafirm Quicken Loans evidently liked what it saw. In 2007, the company decided to move its world headquarters – along with 4,000 employees – to downtown Detroit.

African American entrepreneurs never really gave up on Detroit, the city where Berry Gordy founded Motown Records. In fact, Detroit, with an 82% black population, has a rich legacy of black businesses. Don Barden, one of the city’s most prominent businessmen, founded the Majestic Star Casino, the nation’s largest black-owned casino company. The metro Detroit area is home to about 39,000 black-owned businesses, ranking fourth in the nation, according to U.S. Census data.

One black entrepreneur, Glenn Oliver, has launched, an online exchange for water and wastewater utilities and their vendors. The former Commissioner on the Detroit Water and Sewage Department’s Board of Commissioners, Oliver said, “I’ve lived in other cities, and I will say that there is a stronger entrepreneurial interest here among African Americans than I have felt or seen in other places — and it crosses all socio-economic classes.”

Oliver believes the Internet represents a new frontier of business for Detroiters. “There’s just tremendous opportunity for building up and attracting companies and talent. Information technology … [is] an industry that is much easier to get started in if you’re an entrepreneur than some of these heavily capital intensive industries, and you can grow fairly quickly, and hire a lot of people.”

The future of Detroit may well depend on what entrepreneurs like Glenn Oliver and others are able to accomplish in the virtual and physical world.

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