What Cincinnati can learn from Detroit

Admit it. You're probably reading this story about Detroit because you've heard it's the municipal manifestation of a living, breathing train-wreck. Bankrupt, lost population, a decimated industry and a landscape of graffiti covered, windowless homes. This isn't that kind of story.

Last April, a group of Detroit thought leaders in innovation, nonprofits, development, education and business creation made the trip south to Cincinnati in partnership with the Hudson Webber Foundation to take a look at our city's ongoing urban transformation. Along the way, they discovered some useful insights into their own city documented in this follow up story by Soapbox’s sister publication, Model D. Last month, I was fortunate enough to be among a group of Cincinnatians that swapped cities and made the trip to Detroit.   

The trip was curated by Eric Avner, Vice President of the Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation, who had also played host to our Detroit visitors. His charge in part, as he stated to those of us who made the trip in September, was to think about our opportunities to develop and push our own big and little ideas, taking inspiration from Detroit's determined comeback. He engaged Little Things Labs on the ground in Detroit to fill out a packed itinerary—one that provided our group with insightful glimpses into the city's ongoing strategic recovery and the role innovative nonprofits, determined developers, philanthropic corporations and a healthy infusion of new blood play in Detroit's rebirth.

Here are some insights gleaned from the trip, including some collective takeaways from a few who made the journey. For the most part, our dive into Detroit was focused on the 7.2 miles that comprise downtown and its adjoining neighborhoods where 36,000 Detroiters currently live, work and play. What stuck with me the most when contemplating our two cities and the possible lessons we could learn from our neighbors to the north, is perhaps a twist on that old adage that “everything old is new again."

Industrial Re-evolution
Detroit’s initial prosperity was built on the back of manufacturing, mostly the fabled rise of the American auto-industry giants. The world class-arts and architecture that followed were the happy byproduct of these new philanthropic corporate citizens who made their billions and wanted to reinvest in the city.  

Ensconced inside a former General Motor’s office building that now houses Detroit’s design-centric College of Creative Studies, Shinola is staking its claim as an American watch manufacturer. Still importing raw materials from Switzerland and China, the custom watchmaker uses assembly line techniques that seem right out of the GM playbook to craft coveted timepieces for sale in its flagship stores in New York and Detroit. Shinola plays to Detroit's strengths established by generations of talented designers and industry workers. Their success shows us that the rumblings of manufacturing that are whirring again in Cincinnati—next gen ‘makers’ that like Maker Faire, and small design and production shops like Visualingual—are a step in the right direction.

Besides the auto industry, Michigan's economy has always been driven by its top 10 agricultural industry. So it's no surprise Detroiters are taking something old like Detroit’s Eastern Market (founded in 1895) and reinventing it. The nation's largest open air farmers market is born of a similar public-private partnership as our own Findlay Market, and serves as a regional distribution center for food wholesalers. Its limitation is that it's only open to the public on Saturdays, but Market leaders have found a new way to engage: a shared-use kitchen facility that supports local business creation, designed to capitalize on the state's existing agricultural assets. Findlay Market President Joe Hansbauer made the Detroit trip, and found confirmation in the kitchen incubator idea that his team has been working on. He saw multiple uses in Detroit's model to implement here.   

“I think the ability for food entrepreneurs to have a space they can test and launch product from is a very important step in local food culture,” Hansbauer says. He says a feasibility study is complete and next steps include finalizing a location, and kickstarting the fundraising process.

Minutes from the Eastern Market, Detroit’s Dequindre Cut is another development that could offer support for a similar project here: Cincinnati’s Wasson Way urban trail.

The Cut is a $4.75 million dollar urban greenway repurposed from a former railroad line. Its 1.35-mile bike and pedestrian path runs to the river with the original right of way actually extending deep into the Market where it would maximize access for users. Along the way, the Cut hosts park-like pit stops, public art via legalized graffiti, and views of downtown and the river.

The Wasson Way trail proposes a similar use for a now defunct rail line but would extend a full 6.35 miles from Xavier’s Evanston campus through Norwood, Hyde Park, Oakley and ending in Mariemont, where it could connect with more than 60 miles of biking trails. The estimated $7 million project is currently in right of way negotiations and initial design planning.

Reports from Detroit say the Cut is already spurring development and seeing significant use to encourage extending it right into the Eastern Market.

Big Wheels
While Detroit currently lacks a master developer like Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC), it does have Detroit Future City, which coordinates incentives and subsidies for a host of redevelopment of downtown Detroit's significant real estate assets.

Detroit also has Dan Gilbert. The Quicken Loans founder and Cleveland Cavaliers owner is also a burgeoning downtown real estate mogul. In a presentation on downtown Detroit development, Matt Cullen, one of Gilbert's first lieutenants and CEO of Rock Ventures (our gaming boss), shared that Gilbert and his team have been strategically buying up one empty building at a time, including their first purchase in 2009—a 30-story office tower for the bargain basement price of $8 million (that’s around $8 per square foot). Since then, Gilbert has purchased another 19 or so buildings, adding up to 7 million square feet in downtown’s business district in his portfolio. Most are being updated and converted into residential, office and retail space.

As one of downtown's largest property owners, Gilbert has also entered the business of placemaking by creating fun, open spaces to bring urban dwellers together, including a sandy beach outside Compuware world headquarters. And to get them there he enlisted Cullen to put together a private philanthropic group who has already raised $128 million for Detroit's new light rail that will traverse those 7.2 square miles of downtown real estate.

These are big, bold moves that are equal parts corporate philanthropy and investment.  But Gilbert's betting on Detroit by emulating the kind of civic investment made more than 100 years ago by Detroit's big three auto empires.

This question remains though: With Detroit’s population loss (another point cleared up: It wasn't the recent turn of events that drove population decline in metro Detroit but a slow change over many, many years thanks to an atrophying industry) who’s going to live, work and play in that new downtown sandbox? Gilbert is seeing to that as well.

Cullen says it pays to live in downtown Detroit for 3,600 employees of Quicken/Compuware and other Gilbert corporations who have accepted a variety of cash incentives—including up to $20,000 if you purchase a house in downtown—to rent or own in the city.

Jeanne Golliher, President and CEO of the Cincinnati Development Fund, a nonprofit lending institution that has been financing housing development and community revitalization for 15 years in the urban core, expressed what many on the trip took away.

“I went up there expecting to feel sorry for Detroit, and came away feeling jealous," she says. "I felt that, in some ways, they have the opportunity to completely reinvent the city.”

Sean Rhiney is Director of The Eigel Center for Community-Engaged Learning at Xavier University, and a former Soapbox Managing Editor.
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