Stir It Up: Building a city together 

There was a clutch of bicycles gathered outside, so I knew I was in the right place. Bicycling as transportation is as much a symbol of the young urban innovators as anything else. So there were bicycles outside the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and the Detroit Mercantile Building in Eastern Market last week for the Urban Innovation Exchange (UIX) Detroit.

There were probably bicycles at Passenger, a new contemporary art development center in Capitol Park, on Friday, but I didn't make it to the third day of the event. Some days you just have to go to work.

The UIX was pretty exciting and inspirational. It featured local folks and others from around the country that are thinking and doing city life differently — something of an urban alternative this-is-how-we-do-it business symposium. One thing's for sure: People across the country are pretty much facing the same challenges that we are.

Greg Peckham, managing director at LAND Studio in Cleveland, described the innovation thing this way: "The real voyage of discovery is reframing opportunities and constraints."

That basically means looking at familiar things differently so that you can turn a "liability into an asset," he says. Things like vacant properties and underused infrastructure. That's the attitude that has fueled the urban agriculture movement. Vacant, empty land is being turned into gardens and small farms instead of weed fields full of trash.

Peckham talked about a project back home called Bridge Mix, which involved a festival on a freeway pedestrian overpass. The freeway and the bridge had been seen as separators of two different neighborhoods, but the bridge event brought them together.

That's the same kind of approach that made the Detroit Kitchen Connect for local food entrepreneurs successful. Devita Davison worked to connect commercial cooks struggling in home kitchens with underused commercial quality kitchens at churches and community centers. She referred to the commercial kitchens as "assets laying dormant in our community." The Connect has helped many of the more than 100 new businesses they serve to take the next step.

Helping to pull that together has made Davison a bit of a celebrity since receiving a $25,000 grant from Oprah Winfrey and Toyota at a recent weekend event at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

Davison spoke on the UIX day devoted to the Future of Food. Subjects on tap that day included restaurants, urban farming, food processing, education, community connection, and other foodie concerns. Anthony Hatinger, from the CDC farm and fishery, talked about Detroit's first licensed fish farm and the integrated aquaponic vegetable garden he works with over on Second Avenue, north of New Center.

The other UIX days were dedicated to the Art of Place and the Maker Movement. These themes managed to cover a wide spectrum of efforts such as Detroit Soup, a small funding organization for local businesses, and the Alley Project on the southwest side. At the Alley Project, participants use what local youngsters are already doing as "motivators toward positive personal development," says Erik Howard. That means if they like painting on the backs of garages, rather than fighting about it, they can turn that activity into a skill and use it as a community asset.

Sebastian Jackson, of Social Club Grooming Company, talked about his multicultural barber shop that serves men and women across racial lines, and doesn't just throw away clipped hair. For a while, it was shipped to the Gulf Coast to soak up oil after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Now it's used for composting to fertilize trees and in a project attempting to use it for carbon extraction in the making of synthetic diamonds.

And then there are the Shop Talks, where a panel of community figures speaks to a gathering while getting their hair cut.

Now that's a way to build a community business. It's all aimed at the triple bottom line of being good for profits, the environment, and the community — a message that was emphasized by almost every presenter. It's like a mantra among these urban innovators.

Jackson wrote three versions of his business plan, only to have each rejected by banks. Then he hooked up with an organization named MBAxAmerica that helped him work out ways to meet his needs without the big-time financing.

That was another discussion highlighted one afternoon — the difficulty of getting financing for your business. Amy Kaherl of Detroit Soup bemoaned the difficulty of getting as little as $800 together to kick off a small enterprise.

Eve Picker of CityLab Pittsburgh, who got started developing small buildings, focused on the economics of top-down vs. bottom-up development.

"Banks will only fund projects they are familiar with and have done before," she says.

That contrasts more than dramatically with the new hockey arena and Ilitch entertainment district that broke ground last week while UIX took place. That arena will cost $450 million and the surrounding 45-block entertainment district with retail and residential development will cost an additional $200 million. Michigan taxpayers are covering 58 percent of the arena cost. The Downtown Development Authority will own the 18,000-seat arena, which it will lease to the Red Wings rent-free for up to 95 years. Talk about getting a leg up.

That stood out to me because, during her talk, Picker presented a fairly simple mathematical model to show the cost per use of such projects using the Pittsburgh CONSOL Energy Center, home of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins, as an example. Then she showed the cost per use of several innovative community projects that cost a fraction of that.

To apply her model to the 18,000-seat Red Wings arena, multiply the number of seats times the number of times those seats are filled each year, then multiply that by 30 to total how many times the seats are filled during the lifetime of the bonds issued. Then you divide it all by the cost of the financing.

Let's give it a try.

Assume the Red Wings fill every seat 40 times a year (which will never happen) add another 15 capacity-filling events a year (to be generous) for a total of 55 uses. That's a little less than 28 million visitors over 30 years. That comes to about $15.15 for every person who walks through those doors for the next 30 years based on the $450 million cost, including $8.78 each in public financing.

Yes, I know it's not taking some caveats into account — jobs and taxes and tourism and being a magnet for other businesses — but it's not a bad way to look at it. When you consider the lower cost of helping a lot of small businesses (Picker's examples all cost at least 75 percent less for each use), the idea of supporting them seems like a no-brainer. And they add up to jobs and taxes and magnetism too.

OK, exhale. Math class is over.

Banks aren't the only ones having a hard time embracing innovation. City governments are also having a hard time accommodating innovation in terms of local ordinances and zoning. Those issues include parking, how long it takes to get all the permitting done, and what's a commercial or residential district. Detroit has been slowly coming around on what's a farm and where you can do it. And let's not even get into the creatures some people are keeping.

The overriding ethos of UIX was to not worry so much about city rules and major financing. As one panelist told the crowd, "Be brave and just do it." — mt

Speaking of Urban Innovation Exchange, Detroit Community

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