Graham Sustainability Institute

Engage, Connect, Impact: URC Projects Contribute to Detroit's Revitalization (University Research Corridor)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

As leaders across the state acknowledge that Michigan can't survive and thrive without a healthy Detroit, URC universities are drawing on their faculty and students in countless ways to contribute to the city's revitalization. The universities send students and faculty into the city to work alongside community organizations and learn about Detroit in a ground-level, hands-on way; they also lend expertise and bring the force of their research might to bear on urban problems. 

There are far too many urban initiatives at each school to include them all; instead, we're highlighting examples of how each university engages with the city of Detroit that reflects each university's unique character.

Bringing the buying power

Wayne State anchors the city's Midtown district, and as such has even more impetus to engage with the city around it. In the last decade and a half or so, the university has acknowledged its leading role and influenced the surrounding neighborhood for the better in countless ways, from real estate developments to unleashing the purchasing power of 32,000 students on neighborhood commerce.

Ned Staebler recently joined Wayne State as its vice president of economic development. A former MEDC vice president, Staebler oversees the commercialization of university research; activities related to Tech Town, the university's wildly successful business incubator; and the university's participation in economic development in Midtown and other areas within the city.

Much of Wayne State's influence, Staebler says, comes from its sheer size. The university has partnered with Henry Ford Hospital and the Detroit Medical Center for its "Buy Detroit" initiative, which helps direct the three institutions' purchasing power to Detroit businesses.
"We're doing a third of our POs in the city of Detroit," Staebler says. "We own about 40 percent of the undeveloped real estate in Midtown (along with the hospitals). 

"We realize we're going to be a leader in the area."

Wayne State's also spearheading the Live Midtown initiative, which aims to lure WSU students and staff to the university's neighborhood through financial incentives. More people means more vitality, and more business investment to capture the dollars brought by the new residents. 

"I think attracting more people, that's the game changer," Staebler said. "We have 32,000 students and 5,000 faculty and staff. If we could get a significant chunk of those to live here – and I think we can – we'll be increasing economic activity remarkably."

Charting sustainability 

One of the issues facing the city is that its population has dwindled to 713,000, less than that of Manhattan or San Francisco, while containing enough land to comfortably encompass the land area of both and even include Boston's footprint as well. Couple all that vacant land with the environmental legacy of the city's industrial past and you get a complex welter of sustainability issues.

Studying and mapping those issues is the task of the Detroit Sustainability Indicators Project, a collaboration of the Graham Sustainability Institute of the University of Michigan and Data Driven Detroit. The goals of the project are twofold: gathering and assessing data on environmental, economic and social sustainability, mapping it, and making that data available to the public; and creating a sustainability index for Detroit to inform policy and decision-making and serve as an urban model.

Seven research projects have been funded through the initiative: a look at how neighbors care for vacant land; analysis of watershed management and water quality in Metro Detroit from a planning perspective; tracking environmental lead exposure as a consequence of housing demolition; mapping air pollution; an analysis of economic disparity versus federal investments; and developing a new methodology for measuring sustainability.

The project was spurred by growing faculty and student interest in Detroit and a desire to contribute to solutions, says John Callewaert, director of the program.

"We wanted to create that interdisciplinary platform for the faculty to work together," he says. "We have been exploring for about a year to find a way we could contribute (to Detroit), and we couldn't quite find the place."

The partnership with Data Driven Detroit came about due to a graduate of the Graham program who was working there. Both parties quickly saw their areas of expertise would mesh well. 

Research projects just launched this year, so little data is available as yet. Once work is complete, access to the data for projects in the affected areas is available to anyone who needs it. 

Making a market for food entrepreneurs

Detroit's growing food culture is often pointed to as one of the indicators of renewed creative energy in the city. But not every person with a jam recipe and a dream turns their passion into a business. Michigan State's Product Center for Agriculture, Natural Resources and Food aims to help budding entrepreneurs in those disciplines find ways to successfully market their products.

The Product Center draws on Michigan State's deep and wide knowledge of agriculture, business and packaging, among other disciplines. Would-be food kingpins are assigned a counselor who helps walk them through the process of finding a licensed and inspected kitchen to make their product and helps them test-market it at Detroit's Eastern Market, among other places. Entrepreneurs also have access to MSU's School of Packaging, where students will design an eye-catching and appropriate package for their product at no charge to the business owner.

Innovation Counselor Frank Gublo, who keeps a roster of about 55 clients at any given time, says he thinks the burgeoning food culture is driven by two things: Young, creative types coming here and wanting the same culinary options they had at home, such as food trucks, and people who lost jobs in the recession finally deciding to act on a lifelong passion for food.

"There are people of all kinds of backgrounds who are creative and know how to cook and have a great product from their family recipe book willing to give this a try, along with the good infrastructure we have here," Gublo says. "That's why this has kind of taken off."

Maggie Staples, who markets her Magoo's Gourmet Barbecue Sauce at farmer's markets and recently landed her first retail client, credits the help she got from the product center as a major factor in her success. "It was a dream for me, but they are the experts," she says. "I don't know what I would have done without them."

Gublo says of his clients, "They are debunking the myth of Detroit. It is a special place, and these folks are literally giving a very strong alternative view of what the city is about."