Can Detroit Be Saved?

The Motor City struggles to rise from the ashes of economic depression and reinvent itself as a center for entrepreneurship and industry

The Kings see renewable energy as Detroit’s future (Credit: Ara Howrani)

The Kings see renewable energy as Detroit’s future (Credit: Ara Howrani)

But first there must be a change of culture. “I think Detroit really suffers from a lack of entrepreneurial spirit. It’s mostly a function of the fact that the auto companies have been so successful for so long and they built such a big corporate culture that permeated thinking at all levels of society there,” says Donald Grimes, senior research specialist for the University of Michigan. “You’re on your own more now than you’ve ever been. People have to recognize that. I don’t think they’re going to be able to find big institutions figuring out solutions to their problems.”

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm wants to shift the state’s massive manufacturing capabilities to serve the emerging green economy. “We know that technology associated with the auto industry can be transferred to produce better materials for wind turbines and solar panels. We want to identify the natural strengths we have based upon our traditional base and move them into areas we know are up and coming, like the green economy.”

Today’s Motown Enterprises

Jimmy and Natalie King are among area residents who understand this. They also view renewable energy as being an important element in Detroit’s economic revitalization. As owners of J King Solar Technologies L.L.C., which engineers, designs, and installs solar paneling, primarily for commercial facilities, the husband-and-wife team is hoping to get a piece of the retrofitting pie as city- and state-owned buildings are brought into the 21st century with renewable energy or energy-efficient additions. Based in nearby Southfield, Michigan, the startup company, funded with roughly $180,000 from a combination of the couple’s funds and outside investments, has just one project: installation of a 145 kilowatt solar photovoltaic system in Bordertown, New Jersey. In the fall, J King Solar Technologies will be one of several vendors participating in DTE Energy Co.’s solar pilot program offering rebates to residential and small business clients.

The firm only netted about $10,000, but the Kings remain optimistic about future prospects. Jimmy, 36, a member of the University of Michigan’s famed “Fab Five” basketball team would like to see Detroit capitalize on what many consider a growth industry. “You look at the infrastructure of the city and the state itself; we have a lot of manufacturing capability,” he says. “We’d love to see green-collar jobs come to the city. That was a major factor in our determination to start this business.”

The Kings have tapped into an area where there’s plenty of money to be made. According to the LOHAS Journal, a publication that tracks economic trends, green products and services generate roughly $209 billion a year—a number that’s only expected to grow as more Americans adopt more eco-friendly practices. With its vast manufacturing capability, Detroit can capture a significant portion of these dollars through the development of wind turbines, solar panels, and energy-efficient batteries. That’s where legislation can help. “The state must have strong incentive programs that will make investment in a renewable energy system make sense—that’s when you create jobs,” says Natalie, 35. “Then developers will begin to write solar into their specs since it’ll make economic sense.”

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