Detroit is known by many names: The D, Motor City, and Motown, among others. But this once sprawling metropolis of nearly 2 million has over the past few decades become more synonymous with poverty, crime, unemployment, and urban blight. With a population half the size of its glory days, the city now struggles to find a new identity as the auto industry—its economic engine—continues to shrink.
Challenges abound for this struggling city and its mayor. Dave Bing, elected in May to complete Kwame Kilpatrick’s term after the latter resigned amid charges of corruption, is contending with the city’s approximately $300 million deficit and a more immediate budget shortfall that he says could leave Detroit without operating capital by the end of the year.
Despite all the bad news in Detroit—and there has been plenty—hope remains. In fact, one of the keys to revival can be found in TechTown. This 9-year-old nonprofit organization is providing new companies with services, support, and resources needed to grow and thrive. The 100,000-square-foot business incubator facility—Michigan’s largest—was a former car factory built in 1927. Now, it’s home to nearly 90 companies—about 40% of which are African American-owned.
Carla Walker-Miller, one of TechTown’s residents, says the incubator gave her the support she needed to help grow her business. “I wouldn’t be as comfortable in business as I am right now and I wouldn’t be as hopeful,” says the president and CEO of Walker-Miller Energy Services L.L.C., a supplier of electrical equipment and provider of energy optimization services. “TechTown gives us the wherewithal to dream bigger and to accomplish bigger than we would have otherwise.”
Walker-Miller, whose company generated some $4 million last year, has been in TechTown for five years, having taken advantage of its mentoring services, as well as phone support and access to conference rooms to hold meetings.
TechTown helps foster innovation and entrepreneurship —vital components for a new Detroit that can no longer be a one-trick pony banking on the restructuring of a devastated automotive industry. “Instead of having 90 companies today, when you come back in three years’ time, our challenge is to have 500,” says Randal Charlton, TechTown’s executive director. “That’s one new company in Detroit every 2.7 days, from now until 2012, so this is the start of a revolution.”
But a revolution has to be fought on many fronts. The creation of tech jobs is but one battle in a series of wars this city must fight to achieve true revitalization. For a century, Michigan has been the automotive capital of the world, boasting seven times more jobs in this sector than any other state in the nation. The industry has also given birth to some of the largest black-owned businesses—many ranked among the be 100s. But since 2000 the city has lost three-quarters of its automotive jobs, and its unemployment rate has surpassed 15%. Amid this backdrop, black enterprise takes a diagnostic look at this troubled city to see what tools and parts are needed for a successful Motor City overhaul.