This was the question a group of 35 Torchbearers from Akron were set out to answer on a recent road trip to the Motor City. In a whirlwind 36 hours touring different neighborhoods and visiting various organizations, the tenacity of the city became clear. The architecture was captivating, the nightlife was enticing and the positive attitude of service and commitment to the people of Detroit was inspiring.
The goal of this road trip to Detroit was for participants to take these “a-ha moments” from Detroit, and transform them into achievable ideas for projects, programs and development in Akron.
In early 2015, Torchbearers received its largest single grant, $65,000, from the John S. and James L Knight Foundation. From this grant, SPARC (Small Projects Achieving Real Change) was conceived by Torchbearers leadership. The goal of SPARC is fast, dynamic outward-facing interactions and projects with a focus on talent attraction and retention within Akron. In addition to SPARC, this grant sponsored two trips, the first being to Detroit on May 31.
To kick things off, the first item on the agenda was a bus tour with the Detroit Experience Factory (DXF). The purpose of DXF is to “create experiences that are enlightening, entertaining, and led by Detroiters who know Detroit in order to demonstrate that it is an exceptional place to live, work and play.”
While outside visitors like Torchbearers are welcomed with open arms, the hope of DXF is to get people who already live in Detroit to become more engaged and involved in their own back yard.
“It’s all about the love of cities and communities,” said DXF tour guide Jon Chezick. “We help other people to love their city and to love cities in general.”
It was learned from DXF that Detroit is a city that has gone through a roller coaster of ups and downs. At the height of the automobile industry in 1955, the population was 2 million. In 2010, the population was recorded as being just 700,000 (a 60-percent decrease).
However, things are in the upswing again. In the past 6 to 7 years, 17,000 jobs have returned to the area, and 99 percent of downtown is at capacity for residential housing. The downtown area is a mecca for food and entertainment, with over 150 bars and restaurants (and even a popular urban “beach” with live music and sand volleyball).
Areas surrounding downtown are also improving. The West Village was once filled with boarded-up houses, but has since been renovated, with breathtaking homes on the National Registry of Historic Places. The “Rails to Trails” program, where unused railroad tracks are being converted into hiking and biking trails, is another example of revitalization in the area.
In total, there are approximately 20 square miles of undeveloped land in Detroit, which is becoming a breeding ground for innovative start-ups and creative ideas. One example is the Earth Works Urban Farm, a place where healthy food is grown for the less fortunate.
The nearby “Heidelburg Project” demonstrates how one man has transformed a portion of the East Side into one giant piece of living art, complete with polka dotted streets, giant clocks and vibrantly painted houses. The project is quite a head-turner, and it intends to educate and enrich the community through the arts.
The next morning began with Ponyride Detroit, a 30,000-square-foot co-working creative space for offices and industry in Detroit’s Corktown Neighborhood. Part business incubator and part collaborative workspace, Ponyride is a nonprofit created to give entrepreneurs an affordable place to launch their own businesses and collaboration with others (the workspace costs just 50 cents per square foot).
Among the occupants at Ponyride are the Smith Shop (a blacksmithing, jewelry making and metal working company), the Detroit Denim Company and Beard Balm (styling and grooming products for men with beards).
Similar to Ponyride was the next stop of the day: Build Institute, a network of grassroots programs that assist people in turning their project or business ideas into reality. The Build Institute provides necessary tools, education and a support network to get started (with over 400 entrepreneurs who have already completed the program).
The theme of building businesses in Detroit continued when visiting the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC), a private nonprofit corporation devoted exclusively to supporting Detroit’s economic development.
DEGC’s Michael Forsyth explained how he launched ‘Revolve Detroit’ to focus on finding talent and opportunities that exist for vacant storefronts in areas surrounding downtown. He was successful in adding 12 permanent businesses and 20 pop-ups in the aforementioned West Village, and cited the integration of arts with business as one of the “game-changers.”
“My advice for Akron is to put the call out,” said Forsyth. “Create a way to capture ideas and calls for entries. Put the word out and let the people come to you with ideas.”
A final “a-ha moment” came from Devita Davison, co-director and chief cultivator at FoodLab Detroit, a nonprofit group that promotes good food business with peer-to-peer mentoring. Davison reminded the group that people are the bottom line in all that you do, and that you need to allow for people from the community to have a seat at the table if you want to be successful.
“If you want to make change, you need to have true, genuine, authentic relationships with the community,” Davison said. “You need to have social capital in order to get anything done.”
When time came to depart Detroit and head back to Akron, Torchbearers shared with the group all of their own personal takeaways and “a-ha moments.” The bus ride home turned into a discussion to jumpstart ideas for potential projects and programs that can be implemented in Akron, keeping in mind all of the bits of advice and inspiration exhibited on the Torchbearers Road Trip. With all of the eye opening sites visited while in Detroit, there is no doubt that the Torchbearers will help to take Akron to the next level.
(Michael Evans, from Akron General Health System, and Crista Bartolomucci, from Apple Growth Partners, are from Torchbearers – Class 2015)