- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007


Clothing designer Dominic Pangborn needed more room for his growing business. He selected what some might view as an unlikely location: a long-abandoned factory along the Detroit River.

“It had no roof, and there was 3 feet of water on the floor. Luckily, it was winter and the water was frozen,” said the founder and owner of Pangborn Design and Pangborn Collection. “But I see an opportunity in the despair of the situation. People complain that Michigan is the Rust Belt. We have to clean up or replace that rust.”

That philosophy is what drives the Korean-born businessman and fuels his belief that there is more opportunity to be found in Detroit, which is painfully evolving from the gritty, blue-collar community that shaped its national identity.

Mr. Pangborn, 54, said bulldozing boarded-up factories and wiping away other signs of Detroit’s industrial past from the riverfront is the place to start.

He is one of several investors in the much-anticipated $4.5 million Asian Village development. The 18,000-square-foot mix of restaurants, Asian-inspired shopping and entertainment is expected to open next month.

Others also are looking at downtown as fertile ground for investment. A $47.3 million, 13-story project just blocks from the riverfront will feature 80 condos. A short walk away is the $35 million redevelopment of the Book Building and Book Tower that will include 175 condos and 108,000 square feet of commercial space.

Asian Village is adjacent to the Renaissance Center, the 30-year-old skyscraper complex that General Motors Corp. purchased for its headquarters in 1996, sparking redevelopment efforts along the river that separates Detroit from Canada. Many city leaders see Asian Village as a doorway to more investment along the riverfront, where two miles of a planned five-mile paved pedestrian path will be completed this month and open next month.

Pangborn sees any success by Asian Village as a draw for foreign investment and capital.

“China is coming here literally every day,” said Mr. Pangborn, who was born Jung Sung-hun in a remote, mountain village in South Korea and was adopted by a Michigan family when he was 10.

“You can’t ignore China, India, South America. No one thinks of businesses from out of town coming here. That’s the mind-set. And that’s not changing yet. Someone has to get it started. I want to be part of making a change.”

Mr. Pangborn, whose work can be found on more than 100 consumer products, opened Pangborn Design in downtown Detroit in 1979 at a time when several businesses were relocating to the suburbs. J.L. Hudson, downtown’s retail anchor for more than a century, had shut down some departments and would close in 1983.

For Mr. Pangborn, business was good. His design company outgrew two offices downtown as demand for his artwork increased.

“People saw my design work and would say, ‘You belong in New York or Los Angeles,’ ” Mr. Pangborn said. “I asked and found out there were no designers here. I see that as an opportunity. There was no competition.”

His reputation blossomed. Clients such as GM, Procter & Gamble Co., Kmart, Xerox Corp., and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan eagerly sought his expertise for corporate logos and custom publications.

“Dominic is one of the most creative people in metropolitan Detroit,” said Michael O’Callaghan, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Metropolitan Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau. “He is a real progressive thinker when it comes to our region.”

Mr. Pangborn understands the region and Michigan. His adoptive family is from Jackson, and Mr. Pangborn lived there through high school. After graduation, he attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. A few years later, he and his new wife put down roots in Detroit.

Much of his work is displayed in his gallery in the former factory on Iron Street. Scarves, watches, rugs, china and glassware share space with dozens of paintings.

Most have a unique look. Mr. Pangborn describes his creativity as one of continuous evolution. But what many of his creations have in common are the bold colors: bright and exotic blues, reds, greens and yellows.

He may be best known locally for his vibrant, signature woven neckties that he started marketing in 1991 and now sells for up to $200. Former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer wears them, as has Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

Mr. Pangborn, who has shops at Detroit Metropolitan Airport and in the Renaissance Center, said he owes much of his success to Detroit. That further fuels his desire to see the city improve. But if Detroit is to go forward, he says, its economy will have to rely more on technology, service and foreign investment.

“He’s a leader in trying to bring this region back,” Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano said. The two were part of a trade mission last fall to China.

“He doesn’t just talk about it. He puts his resources and finances behind what he talks about,” Mr. Ficano said.

Mr. Pangborn acknowledges that given the current economy, recent automotive plant closings and layoffs, now might not be the best time to invest in Detroit.

“But if it was a good time, would I have that opportunity to do it?” he asked. “It doesn’t look good right now, but in the long run, it’s going to be a good move.”

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