Creative genus: $50 million plan seeks to grow wide variety of businesses

By Amy Whitesall and Maureen McDonald

Graphic artist Todd Ridley moved to Detroit in 1995 because he wanted to be part of the vibrant community he'd discovered as a college student — and because his family thought it was a terrible idea.
“I was raised in kind of a backward community, and anything to do with Detroit was frowned upon,” Ridley said. “I remember my mother lying to my father so I could go to Tigers games with our neighbors. His perception was that you'd cross Eight Mile and get shot in the head.”
Ridley, 35, lives with his partner, Bryan Waldecker, 36, an accountant for Quicken Loans, and their two dogs in a diverse, upscale Indian Village community that's just three miles from a bustling downtown Detroit.
Yet he's so close to the riverfront that he can walk out to the end of his quiet, tree-lined street and see the water.
“All our friends are architects, writers or graphic designers,” Ridley said. He is vice president of NeoSynergy, a Bloomfield Hills-based software and Web services firm for car dealers and runs a graphic-design company, G2Graphics, on the side to subsidize repairs on his nearly 100-year-old house.
“We're here because this is the type of place where people like me and creative people are attracted. This is the kind of place we seek.”
This is not your father's Detroit.
It certainly isn't the Detroit maligned in late-night TV monologues. It's the Detroit imagined by the most intriguing, influential and invested residents of the region, a Detroit where ideas happen and creative businesses grow.
According to a report by Austin, Texas-based AngelouEconomics, there are more than 33,000 people working in the region's creative sector — advertisers, architects, writers, designers, film and music producers, and graphic, visual and performing artists. And their industries are growing twice as fast as the service sector and four times as fast as manufacturing.
Creative-industry jobs pay well, too, particularly in fields such as advertising, design and digital media. According to AngelouEconomics, creative industry jobs in Detroit pay an estimated 50 percent more than the U.S. average wage for the industry ($64,768 vs. $42,535).
And dynamic, creative communities attract businesses and talented, energized people. They in turn generate economic development. What's not to love?
The numbers were compelling enough to persuade Detroit Renaissance Inc., an organization of local CEOs, to focus one of six Road to Renaissance initiatives on the creative economy — on growing it, connecting it, and harnessing its vibe to create jobs and change the way the world sees Detroit.
“We know it's a tough time to be doing something like this, yet on the other hand I can think of few other opportunities that we have to not only diversify our economy but also to kind of rebrand our image,” said Detroit Renaissance President Doug Rothwell. “That, to me, is what's exciting about this.”
Detroit Renaissance's $50 million plan to grow the creative economy includes a marketing and branding campaign, a Web site (, business incentives, a business accelerator-incubator and establishment of a creative corridor that will run along Woodward Avenue from the New Center area to the river. Most of the funding will come from foundations, but no one's flinching at the idea or the price tag. Crain's Detroit Business has a contract with Renaissance to develop the Web site, which launched last week. (See story, this page.)
“If we grow a critical mass here, we can be a world center of engineering and design related to the auto industry, related to the design of products, related to the design of buildings and landscapes,” said John Austin, executive director of the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan, which helps the region's biggest givers make their philanthropic dollars count.
“It's an exciting opportunity for us to raise that reality up and focus on specific moves that can help grow that whole empire in Southeast Michigan.”
Much of Detroit Renaissance's plan builds on initiatives and projects that are already in the works — redevelopment of Harmonie Park's restaurants and galleries along with Sugar Hill, a planned artisans park and residence in Midtown. The Downtown Detroit Partnership is making street improvements to attract business and pedestrians, while sweeping plans are under way to redevelop the old General Motors Argonaut Building in the New Center area for the College for Creative Studies.
A recent $200,000 planning grant by the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation launched the Design Detroit initiative to attract up to 1,000 creative professionals to live in Detroit.
The creative business accelerator, then, becomes the “If you build it” to Design Detroit's “They will come.”
Rothwell describes the accelerator as the initiative's anchor, a space on the creative corridor that's expected to occupy 10,000 square feet of office space within three years and twice that by year five. It would provide not only facilities and services, but also networking and mentoring opportunities for creative entrepreneurs and growing small businesses. The plan includes a second accelerator in the redeveloped Argonaut Building.
Projections put the creative corridor's impact at 50-100 new businesses and 800-1,200 new jobs after five years. The accelerator alone is expected to have a $56 million economic impact after five years.
“Particularly as the state is successful in attracting film business here, there are lots of ancillary businesses — there are good sound stages here, lots of good lighting techs,” said Bonnie Folster, executive creative director at Brogan & Partners Convergence Marketing. “I think within the trade publications, Detroit has always been acknowledged as one of the top production communities outside of New York and L.A., but that's just telling the choir.”
Thanks to a long history of automotive advertising, the area is rich with quality talent. The accelerator, along with Detroit Make it Here, creates a connecting point for a community of workers who are otherwise isolated and spread across the whole metropolitan area.
“I don't think the (creative) community has seen itself as a resource,” Folster said.
“There's a huge advertising club that's been merging people for a long time. The Adcraft Club is one of the largest in the country, so the advertising community has always had that sense of all of us. But outside of us, we could look at architects, city planners, furniture makers. ... There's a lot more than anybody's own discipline.”
E.B. Starr knows how important a little acknowledgement can be to creative work, especially in a region where so many relate to work in factory terms. Starr is director of the Motor City International Film Festival, a six-year-old festival that celebrates the work of filmmakers of color.
She grew up in Detroit. Her father worked as a laborer in a Chrysler plant. After several years working in the television industry in Los Angeles, she came home to Detroit, happy to be a big fish in a small pond. She still does independent film work — she's currently in pre-production on a film called “I Wanna Dance.”
Her life here is more balanced and family-oriented than it was in California, but Starr says her mother is still apt to ask, “Now, what is it you do?”
“When you take that camera and you have a dream and you start planning that film, if you have all this goodness and nobody believes in what you're doing, that's hard,” she said.
But Starr also sees an undercurrent that many miss. Her father was a novice filmmaker himself, albeit one who needed that factory job to feed his family. Creativity runs deeper than many people realize.
“A lot of creativity comes out of those factory people,” she said. “They all have something else they do that keeps them going during the day.”
Detroit's authenticity is one of the things that cuts to the heart of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau's D Brand campaign, and it's one of several parallels with Detroit Renaissance's creative initiative.
“At its essence, the personality of Detroit is vibrant, urban, real,” said Jim Townsend, executive director of the Tourism Economic Development Council, an arm of the Convention & Visitors Bureau. “That personality is very attractive and interesting to creative people. ... It should be a natural draw for creatives. We've got the right raw materials to work with.”
Townsend says the D Brand already is having an impact.
In just three months last summer, almost 100,000 new travelers from Ohio and Indiana came to Detroit. An independent research company was able to trace those visits directly to D Brand materials. Those visitors pumped $70 million into the local economy. In 2006, the number of large conventions in the region grew by 50 percent, and the amount of business generated by those conventions grew 40 percent.
“The way we like to look at it, changing a perception is a long-term, complex initiative,” Townsend said. “But one of the things that really contributes is that when you have a hundred thousand new people coming into the region and have so many new conventions, those people are going to contribute to a change in the perception of the region.”
Give Jeanette Pierce a few hours and she will work to shift that perception one doubter at the time. As co-owner of Inside Detroit, the 27-year-old conducts tours of bars, restaurants, public art and noteworthy buildings.
Part of Crain's 2007 class of 20 in their 20s and a fancier of everything Detroit, especially Foran's Irish Pub, Pierce said that “people have a chance to make an impact here quicker than any other city because it has all this passion, this great street community.”
When the rest of the world figures it out, Todd Ridley will be here waiting for them.
When Ridley's old company was purchased in 2004 by Autobytel Inc., his new employer wanted him to move to its Irvine, Calif., office. Autobytel made a great offer, but Ridley and Waldecker decided to stay in Detroit.
“We thought pretty long and hard about it, but we just didn't want to leave,” he said.
“There's this continual feeling that something great is going to happen, and I want to stick around for it.”

© 2007 Crain Communications Inc.


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