Detroit doubles down on startups and young creatives with new “innovation district”

Detroit, on the water. (Image courtesy Bernt Rostad via Flickr.)

Detroit (Image courtesy Bernt Rostad via Flickr)

As Detroit nears the one year anniversary of the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history, creative professionals in a busy downtown corridor are the target of a Washington, D.C.–funded “innovation district” that hopes startups will rev Detroit’s stalled economic engine.

Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley’s book for the Brookings Institution, The Metropolitan Revolution argued that since Congress is frozen, cities must save themselves. In a follow up report, the authors argued for the creation of “innovation districts” to encourage startups and business incubators.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan last month announced the city’s first such district would comprise a stretch of Woodward Avenue from the riverfront to New Center. The area has previously been branded a “creative corridor,” and already enjoys a growing startup culture—most of it formed organically. So what will the new designation change? Perhaps nothing by itself. But as Crain’s Detroit Business reported, clusters of young professionals are happy to have the spotlight:

“The thing we have realized is that we actually have districts within this creative corridor geography,” said Matt Clayson, director of DC3, a partnership between the College of Creative Studies and Business Leaders for Michigan. “There is a certain density of creative practioners [sic] that we did not have four years ago. That’s a good 1,100 creative workers. Four years ago, no.”

When Patrick Thompson was looking to open his interior design studio — which is well known for designing the Detroit Institute of Arts‘ Kresge Court — he was interested in being in Midtown. He didn’t realize there was a creative cluster forming, but he liked the activity on the street and wanted to be around other design businesses. So when a first floor retail spot in The Auburn building opened, he moved in last summer.

“As a landmark alone, it’s been great,” he said. “Everyone is starting to know this area. It’s a pretty high-profile area, so it’s been beneficial for our business being there.”

The three clusters with the most activity at the moment, writes Amy Haimerl for Crain’s, are around Grand Circus Park, near Cass and Canfield Streets, and near DC3 and TechTown Detroit in the city’s New Center neighborhood. Mayor Duggan convened a 17-person panel to chart more innovation clusters around the future and help guide growth in existing creative communities.

As must be noted with any story of rebirth in Detroit, the city’s challenges are beyond the ability of any one intervention to overcome. But “innovation districts” are far from the only solution proposed for Detroit’s problems. Immigration reform, perhaps tied to a special city-specific Visa, has been touted as a potential shot in the arm for the struggling city. And transit improvements, especially along Woodward Avenue—which now has national attention—are a long time coming.

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