Small-business owners find Detroit departments easier to deal with

Posted on April 25, 2012

Small-business owners once found dealing with the City of Detroit bureaucracy “pure hell,” but today a pro-business city government is much easier to work with.

That was the verdict Tuesday at panel of small-business owners and experts during the Detroit Regional Chamber’s first Detroit Business Conference at MotorCity Casino.

Sandy Baruah, the chamber’s president and CEO, said this first conference is planned as an annual event that will focus on Detroit more than the chamber’s annual Mackinac Island policy conference, which tends to look at statewide issues.

“We’re really trying to make this a Mackinac just for Detroit,” Baruah said. Several hundred people had registered for the event in advance.

Among the many bits of interest that emerged Tuesday were two development-related items.

Jim Ketai, managing partner of Bedrock Real Estate Services, the development firm founded by Quicken Loans founder and Chairman Dan Gilbert, said Gilbert and his partners hope to build a high-rise apartment building on the site of the old Hudson’s store, with first-floor retail and parking above. But he gave no timetable.

And Michael Duggan, president and CEO of Detroit Medical Center, said efforts by Midtown anchors like DMC to source more of their supplies locally would lead to a new warehouse being built in the Midtown area soon. But he gave no details of the plans.

On the small-business panel led by former City Council member Sheila Cockrel, several business owners said the city’s notoriously balky bureaucracy has grown more business-friendly and easier to work with.

“It’s night and day from where it was in ’92,” said David Carleton, a partner in the video production firm Mindfield and a partner in the recent purchase of the historic GAR Building, which is being renovated.

When he first started trying to invest in buildings downtown 20 years ago, Carleton said, “It was at that time pure hell. Many times my business partners and I looked at each other and asked, ‘Why don’t they want us here in the city?’ ”

Anthony Curis, a partner in Curis Enterprises, which has created retail developments in the city, said working with city development officials is “a much more pleasant experience” than in years past.

Scott Benson, small-business development manager for the nonprofit group Midtown Detroit, agreed.

“The pain points have started to be reduced,” Benson agreed.

But the business owners also cautioned would-be entrepreneurs to avoid the pitfalls that lead to failure.

Those can include working with people who are “good people but really bad partners,” Phil Cooley said, and the arrogance that presumes that success is easy.

Carleton agreed.

“It’s approaching all these opportunities with a level head,” he said. “Go easy, spend carefully, borrow wisely, and don’t give up.”

John Gallagher, Detroit Free Press