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Ned Staebler Headshot

Why Detroit? Why Now?

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DETROIT
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Let me start with a simple premise: I am not naïve.

It would be foolish to think that this is the first time in the last 30 years that Detroiters started to believe, "This time is different. This time Detroit is on its way back." I can remember feeling like this before. And, I know I'm not alone. There have been big projects that rightfully gave hope to Detroiters -- the building of the Renaissance Center or Comerica Park. And, there are milestones in Detroit's history -- the People Mover and the election of Kwame Kilpatrick -- that, in retrospect, make us feel foolish for our misplaced optimism.

That said, and at the risk of looking really foolish in 10 years, I believe that this time is different. This time Detroit is on its way back. So, what makes me so optimistic? It's a combination of things, and that, in and of itself, is a good thing.

For starters, this time, there is no one big thing that we're banking on. Rather, it's the aggregation of dozens of projects varying in size, scope, and ambition that is giving the city a vibrancy it hasn't had in decades. Is there a plan moving forward for light rail on Woodward as the spine for a regional transit plan? Sure. Am I pinning my hopes on it? Nope. Is Dan Gilbert buying up office buildings downtown and looking to fill them with high-tech companies? Yep. But, if in the ultimate spasm of irony, he pulls a LeBron and abandons us for Cleveland, is all hope lost? No way.

Why not? Each of these projects is just one part of an ecosystem of activity that seems to grow bigger every day. Much ado has been made about the hipsters moving to town, and they're certainly coming in droves. But, it's more than just millennials in skinny jeans and funky glasses. People of all ages are getting involved. Many of them have been here all along, toiling under the clouds of negative publicity hovering over the city. Some of us are 'boomeranging' back after spending time abroad.

Model D Media, a publication that has helped change the narrative about Detroit, recently hosted an event called the Next Big Thing: Is a Million Little Things. It featured lots of the home-grown projects that are changing the face of the city. Odds that any of these will single-handedly save Detroit? Zilch. Can all of them do it together? Maybe.

There are dozens of these little organic projects underway. But, the big boys are partnering too, in a way I have never seen before. Wayne State University, Henry Ford Health Systems, and the Detroit Medical Center are collaborating with Midtown Detroit Inc. to add density, jobs, and vitality to midtown. Blue Cross, DTE, Quicken, Compuware, and Strategic Staffing have followed suit downtown. In the past, there seemed to be mistrust and decades of baggage at every turn, and there is still fierce competition between the various factions. But, now this competition seems to be about who loves the D more and who can be seen as doing the most to speed in the city's recovery.

This momentum is aided by another powerful force that is finally tilting in the city's direction: economics. Where else can you buy a beautiful 1930s stone house for 10k? Want to buy a new warehouse or rent some office space? Make me an offer. Of course, things are still a little rough around the edges, and perhaps city services are somewhat sporadic. But if you're an entrepreneur, taking out your own garbage is hardly the biggest challenge you face on a daily basis.

And finally... finally... the media (national as well as local) is starting to get it. Until a year or two ago, you didn't see the word "Detroit" in a newspaper over the last 30 years unless it was followed by the words "bankruptcy" or "crime" or "urban decay." Today, the modern American city is being celebrated as the way forward, places where density and proximity lead to innovation, economic growth and (not or) a healthier environment. And, it seems everybody in the country is rooting for the D.

This newfound, positive vibe is spread virally in the ever-growing social media world. Search for "Detroit" on Facebook and you'll find hundreds of groups. Some have names that include words like "defend," "restore," or "save." But, increasingly there are more and more with other themes in their titles: "salsa," "young," "discover." Why is this important? Because, we'll know Detroit is healthy again when we all have stopped focusing on saving it.

A friend of mine recently had a house warming party. Normally, this is an occasion where a few good friends and neighbors bring over a bottle of wine and celebrate their friend or new neighbor's achievement of an "adult milestone". But, in this case she invited several hundred employees of a new local employer to show them the type of housing stock available in the city. I can't wait until the D is back on track, so economic development will get out of the way of a good party.

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