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Detroit’s downtown ‘starting to fight back’

Upwardly mobile lead the way

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DETROIT — For the past seven months, geologist Dan Ten Brink has made his home in a loft in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood, working at an upscale cafe to make ends meet while on the lookout for a more permanent job.

The Grand Rapids native, 26 and single, loves city living and riding his bike all over town, and he notes that today's Detroit, while decidedly urban, retains a small-town feel that is less overwhelming than, say, Chicago or New York.

He is part of a trend of young professionals who are relocating to Detroit. Although the city has lost significant population in the past several decades, including a 25 percent drop from 2000 to 2010, one demographic is up 59 percent: college-educated professionals ages 24 to 35 who live downtown, according to the 2010 census.

With a host of apartments, condos and lofts opening in midtown and several large companies such as Quicken Loans, Compuware and Blue Cross and Blue Shield moving operations to the city center — and offering cash incentives, no less, to staffers willing to live nearby — the rebirth of Detroit is capturing the imaginations of young and upwardly mobile explorers who say they want to get in on the ground floor of what they describe as a cultural shift.

"This is a city that is starting to fight back," Mr. Ten Brink said. "A lot of people have moved in from the suburbs because they want to be a part of a growing urban culture.

"It's starting to turn upbeat here," he said. "It's a fun area to be around. I feel like new things are happening, and it's great to see it taking shape."

A city opening its doors

After taking years of criticism for political malfeasance, a foreclosure epidemic and epic blight, Detroit was named last month by Forbes magazine as the best American city for business.

Some would dispute the superlative, but those who support the emerging business and creative mojo say the city is opening its doors to possibilities, reinventing itself amid criticism from outsiders that the Motor City has become unmanageably dirty, poor and crime-ridden.

One of those true believers is Nate Forbes — no connection to the magazine — a Detroit-area native who is the managing partner in the Forbes Co., which owns and manages the tony Somerset Collection shopping center in nearby Troy.

The company opened a CityLoft shop on Detroit's once-resplendent Woodward Avenue, now a mishmash of fledgling businesses and empty storefronts. The 4,500-square-foot retail space offers a sampling of wares from the high-end retailers at Somerset.

At the shop's swanky opening last week, Mayor Dave Bing, the former Detroit Pistons star who has faced down a $126 million budget shortfall and criticisms that his business sensibilities outweigh his compassion, proudly proclaimed, "Our city is ready to come back."

Mr. Forbes said he is realistic about growth — it won't happen overnight — but that the changes are dynamic and the atmosphere palpable.

"This area was a bustling street for many years. Now, when you are down here you can feel the momentum with all of the young people around," he said. "They have rebuilt the riverfront area. It's becoming more of a dynamic place."

The rebirth, he said, has been shaped by public-private partnerships, and he calls the current generation of city leaders business-friendly.

"When you get a city or community working hand in hand with you as a partner, you can do a lot of great things. People are really investing in the city," Mr. Forbes said.

"Of course Detroit has a lot of geography — it's a large city. There's no telling how long it will take, but you have to start off in small chunks. You have a lot of businesses moving to the area that will spawn other investments — hotels, retail, restaurants. It's one block at a time, but when you go down there now, you feel a renewed energy."

Building partnerships

Public-private efforts have landed a 22,000-square-foot Whole Foods Market for the inner city, which had been lacking large grocery stores.

"The demand is here, because Detroiters are spending $200 million outside the city for groceries," Mr. Bing said in announcing the deal between Whole Foods and the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. "[The project is] sure to bring those dollars back to Detroit."

Other partnerships center around housing incentives to lure and retain workers downtown.

Henry Ford Health Systems, Wayne State University and the Detroit Medical Center, the largest employers in Detroit's midtown, offer cash perks to renters and homebuyers. First-year renters can receive $2,500 allowances for their apartments, and existing renters get $1,000 to renew the leases.

Homebuyers can receive $20,000 forgivable loans for primary residences within the city. Those who already own their homes are offered matching funds of up to $5,000 to make exterior improvements on projects costing $10,000 or more.

Old troubles persist

Despite the signs of renewal, Detroit remains a troubled city.

The number of homicides is up 15 percent from the same time last year — on pace to hit a decade-long per capita record, police announced last month.

The mayor, in an effort to better allocate resources according to need, announced a plan to target city services based on neighborhood health with rankings of steady, transitional or distressed.

The city's schools remain under emergency financial manager control as they work to close a budget deficit and enhance achievement after the U.S. secretary of education dubbed the district the worst in America.

Mr. Ten Brink, who moved to Detroit after working for an oil and gas company in Pennsylvania, said he is cautious as he moves through the city, noting its reputation for crime. His car was stolen, taken on a joy ride and written off by his insurance company as a total loss after police located it. He also had a few break-ins, but nothing that has caused him great fear.

Although he has enjoyed the opportunity to get involved in community service — he coached youth basketball in nearby Hamtramck — the thing that will keep him in the city, he adds, is a full-time job in his profession.

"My background is geology, but there are not that many opportunities around here as I thought," the Calvin College graduate said. "That's the biggest obstacle: finding something that fits where I want to go."

Sarah Ayers, who left big-city life as an art gallery manager in New York to return to her home state, said Detroit's emerging arts community was the lure.

"There is a creative freedom that you find here," the 27-year-old curator said. "There isn't an overly cohesive art movement here yet, but Detroit is just, like everything is happening and everyone is taking liberty and creating what they want without restrictions."

Ms. Ayers, who grew up in Marcellus, near Kalamazoo on the state's western side, lives over a bar, which offers a place to hang out and meet new friends.

Although she said she is cautious about her safety, she calls the Detroit stereotype a myth.

"We're kind of in the process here of starting something, and I'm so happy to be surrounded by people who have this energy about them and the foresight to see something bigger. I want to encourage people to come here and see it for themselves. There is a preconceived notion that 'Oh, I'm going to get mugged.' But it's just beautiful down here and worth the time to explore."

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