Accelerating Detroit or A New Gospel
Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be a spy. I carried a tiny note pad around to record my observations. I snuck up on my brother and sister to see what they were doing. My favorite childhood book: “Harriet the Spy,” natch. So it's little wonder that I ended up a journalist: I get to learn all of people's information (secret or not) and carry a way cooler notebook.
This is one reason I love talking to people like David Egner. He is executive director of the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan, an innovative philanthropic organization based in Detroit. (For those keeping score, it is right downtown on Fort Street.) (More on Time.com: See pictures of Detroit's beautiful, horrible decline )
Chatting with someone such as Egner makes you feel like you somehow have an insider's track on what's happening in the city. He knows everyone, he is aware of nearly everything and he seems to truly care about what happens next to Detroit. Thus, he is the perfect source for interrogation. If only I had some access to truth serum…
But I did have access to Egner for a nice, long interview. We talked about Detroit's assets, the NEI's new, outstanding business accelerator it announced in June and more. Even better, Egner hinted at a few things in the works that NEI and its related partners are working on…and although I cannot reveal them, let's just say we should all have good reason to love the D a little more in the months to come.
Most importantly, he gave me this quote: “It took us decades to get here; it's going to take us decades to get back,” Egner said. And if that's not gospel, I don't know what is. (More on Time.com: Read a postcard of how philanthropy is remaking Detroit)
Some background: NEI is a collaboration of ten national, regional and local foundations. Together, they have committed $100 million to an eight-year initiative to basically fix this thing we call Detroit. The 10 groups are: the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan (Detroit), the Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation (Southfield), the Ford Foundation (New York), the Hudson-Webber Foundation (Detroit), the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (Battle Creek), the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (Miami), The Kresge Foundation (Troy), the McGregor Fund (Detroit), the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation (Flint) and the Skillman Foundation (Detroit).
In a nut shell, Egner is the big guy for NEI and the Hudson-Webber Foundation. This guy goes to more meetings, talks to more people and gets more email in one day that I probably receive in a month. And that's good. That means something is cooking in the city, and it's pretty tasty.
The NEI is concerned with a few things, Egner said. They are: capitalizing on the city's assets and advancing them, fostering an entrepreneurial ecosystem and developing the region's skilled and employable workforce. Tall order, indeed. (More on Time.com: See TIME's special report “The Committee To Save Detroit”)
The big Ta-Da of late is the business accelerator. It involves the area's top groups: Ann Arbor SPARK, Automation Alley (out of Oakland County), Macomb-Oakland University's INCubaor and TechTown (here in the city). This new group – the Business Accelerator Network for Southeast Michigan – just started meeting together to talk about the big-picture issues that affect Southeast Michigan, business plan development and job growth/business retention. NEI is kicking in a $3 million grant over three years to get the collaboration off the ground.
Check this: Collectively, these four business accelerators have invested in 339 start-up companies, invested more than $18 million, created more than 1,000 jobs and secured more than $101.2 million in additional capital for the companies. So we have something here worth developing even further, Egner notes.
And that is largely what NEI and groups like it are trying to do: Providing the funding, the location and the neutrality to get more people to sit down together and solve this problem known as Detroit.
“Our role is to hold up a mirror” for the region, Egner said. He wants people to really question what they're doing – even if they think they're already rock stars and great in every way – and try to come up with better outcomes. Because this city just can't take any more slackers, and it really needs things to start clicking in a serious way. (More on Time.com: See a TIME special on how Detroit lost its way )
For example, the business accelerator collective is going to develop what Egner described as an “asset map,” or a list of who's doing what and who's doing it best. That's key if you want to get the region operating in a productive manner. The key staff at these four organizations will be meeting quarterly, and big news is coming soon about what they're going to be doing in the months to come. Big. Major. Good Stuff. I wish I could say more, but I hate when a spoil sport ruins something because they want to “break” a story. That verb has some power, you know.
NEI also is supporting the work going on in Midtown to unite Wayne State University, the small business people, the residents and the medical centers there. The idea is to get more folks to consider moving into Detroit, fixing up Detroit and getting some grant money behind the ideas that are working.
One more time: “It took us decades to get here; it's going to take us decades to get back,” Egner said.
True that. Thankfully, we've got someone working for us instead of against us.