Neighborhood development just might be the next great frontier for Detroit’s development boom, offering considerable opportunity for African-American developers, construction workers and other related trade workers. Much more opportunity than they ever got downtown.

With so much focus now on Detroit’s neighborhoods — largely as a response to unyielding criticism that the neighborhoods appeared to be slipping into an afterthought compared to the excitement generated surrounding the golden 7.2 square miles of downtown and Midtown — it’s not surprising that last Saturday’s ARISE Detroit! Eighth Annual Neighborhoods Conference, held at Wayne County Community College downtown campus, drew such a large attendance. In addition to the community workshops, the primary focus this year was on the critical importance of neighborhood development, what it means for Detroit’s future, and what it means for African-American economic inclusion in the revitalization of this city.

A blue-ribbon panel of developers was assembled for a lively, informative and brutally honest lunchtime panel discussion about why African Americans need to be more involved in developing their own communities — and how to deal with the forces that are standing in the way.

Marvin Beatty, vice president of Greektown Casino and a partner in Magic Plus which is developing the Michigan State Fairgrounds, said that his retail developments have been successful “because the people of Detroit have made the decision that when you have an opportunity to shop in your own community, you do. To recirculate your dollar more than one time is the most significant part of making sure that reinvestment in our community will happen. And you have done that. And as retail becomes a part of our community, and the only way it becomes part, is that you have to demonstrate to retailers throughout this country that you want to shop in your own community. That it’s your community that it’s important to shop in.”

Beatty said that the State Fairgrounds area that his organization will be developing is 160 acres.

“One hundred and sixty acres is the size of downtown Royal Oak. That just gives you an idea of the power that exists in that piece of property,” he said.

But size isn’t all that matters. Attracting retailers will also be key to the development’s success, and that aspect has its own set of challenges.

“[There are still] retailers to this day who are not convinced they should be a part of the city of Detroit. Believe it or not, the struggle continues, and you look around. Even downtown you don’t see the level of major retailers downtown and Midtown because they’re still not convinced that this is the right place to do business. The only way they’re going to be convinced that this is the right place to do business is that we continue to put pressure on those stores. Put pressure on Target, put pressure on all of those stores that are servicing you in the suburbs, but fail to service you in your own community.

“We have to continue to work for ourselves to make sure that our community develops the way that it should,” he said.

Beatty shared a story about a local reporter who asked him what’s taking him so long to develop the State Fairgrounds “and my answer to him was, ‘Did you ask that same question to Dan Gilbert? Did you ask that same question to Mile Ilitch? And if you didn’t, don’t ask me that question.’ Because development is hard. Access to capital for the African-American community is a challenge. Access to capital is the barrier that precludes us from developing our own communities,” said Beatty.

“If banks and institutions don’t loosen the way they do business with us, the way they do business with others, we’ll continue to struggle in our communities to see ourselves develop. We have the skills and the intellect to do exactly the kind of thing that Dan Gilbert is doing. But if we don’t have the same access, we will not have the same opportunity.”

Douglas Diggs, CEO of The Diggs Group, which helped construct Little Caesars Arena, agreed with that assessment.

“The critical component of rebuilding our neighborhoods is access to capital. Access to opportunity. Without that access to capital, we will not be able to rebuild our neighborhoods,” said Diggs.

And part of gaining access to capital is pressuring local banks and institutions to do a better job of working with the local black business community.

“If somebody doesn’t bank in your neighborhood, then you don’t deposit money in their bank. If somebody won’t provide you capital to remodel your home or for your next development? Take your money out of the bank. Put it in a bank that will. That’s what you have to do in the capital market.”

In addition to access to capital, the other component is job readiness and preparation.

“With Little Caesars Arena, we had 60% Detroit business participation. We had a goal of 30%. But we had a goal of 51% Detroit workforce participation, and unfortunately … we were only able to achieve, despite 18 outreach events touching over 18,000 people, we were only able to achieve 33% of construction for that arena. How do we change that conversation? It’s not going to be with another arena, it’s not going to be with a high rise. It’s starting with how you rehab a house. Create those opportunities for our young people to get an opportunity to learn the skills, learn the trades, so that as we get to the larger projects, they have those opportunities. Whether it’s a house or an arena, we need to have the skills to complete that.

“How do we take that shade tree mechanic working in his front yard and get him to a full shop? We give him opportunity and access to capital. That’s where it all starts,” he said.

“There’s more opportunity in the neighborhoods than there will ever be in downtown Detroit. Take that opportunity to build and rebuild our neighborhoods.”

Pam Martin Turner, executive director of Vanguard CDC, which is developing housing in Detroit’s North End, pointed out that too often we avoid the reality of race and racism when those issues need to be confronted openly and directly

“Don’t be afraid of the equity and race conversation. Detroit is a city that’s nearly 80% black, and therefore we should be leaders in development here,” said Turner. “It impacts our communities, and our funders are more interested in the subject more than you know, probably. And research really supports the importance of the conversation, and it’s not playing the race card. There is no race card. So don’t be afraid to elevate the conversation and to call on local experts who really understand race, equity and power.”

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