What New Orleans Can Learn from Detroit

The Motor City has become an example of an effective city government and business partnership.

America has not had a true free market economy for many decades. There is hardly an industry in the country that is not subsidized, incentivized or otherwized.

All of this certainly begs the question of what is the appropriate role of government in supporting business.

From an entrepreneurial perspective, some very interesting answers can be found in a lineup of innovative entrepreneur support programs available through Detroit’s city government.

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That Detroit is serious about supporting new businesses and helping local businesses grow, is evident by a visit to the city’s website. Looking at a few of these programs is an amazing lesson in true public-private partnership, and how a government with limited resources can leverage relationships to promote quality economic development. Among the highlights:

Motor City Match provides $500,000 in grants every quarter to new and existing businesses and building owners. Its purpose is to connect businesses looking for the right location to owners of business properties; the funds assist both in making a successful match. In the process, properties in the city’s long-distressed downtown area are revitalized and brought back into commerce.
BizGrid is an interactive online directory of resources for new and growing small businesses, including essentials such as various business-planning services, co-working spaces and even financial resources. It’s extraordinarily user-friendly, well-organized and written in plain English rather than business speak. While New Orleans now has exceptional entrepreneurial resources itself, finding and navigating through them is extremely challenging. A compendium like BizGrid would be a huge help.
Build Institute offers a variety of programs for emerging entrepreneurs, from business classes to networking opportunities to mentorship. Funding opportunities are available via a partnership with international funding nonprofit Kiva. The city even puts on “Build Bazaars,” pop-up markets featuring products from companies that participate in the program.
BizdomU, a tech-focused startup accelerator that “provides seed funding and intense mentorship to entrepreneurs looking to launch and grow innovative tech-based startups in the downtown urban core of Detroit. It is focused on businesses that are web- or tech-based, scalable and can get to beta, prototype, or first customers within three months.”
D2D — in essence a matchmaking service for local buyers and sellers.

Collectively, these and other city programs have created an entrepreneurial environment that is rapidly bringing Detroit from its state of near-collapse just a few years ago into the forefront of urban revitalization. By being a true partner with the community, the city marshals resources in a way that gets substantially more bang for the public buck. The big picture thinking — as exemplified by the focus on incentivizing the restoration of blighted properties to create locations for new and growing businesses — connects multiple dots in ways that again make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

At the recent NationSwell conference in New York, Jill Ford, a special advisor to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan who coordinates many of these efforts, pointed out that “for Detroit to really come back, we all have to come back together.” Ford added that a very high percentage of participants in these programs are women and people of color — both populations are not so well included in New Orleans’ entrepreneurial landscape.

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Greater New Orleans has certainly established itself as a hub of entrepreneurship, yet there is always room for improvement. With new leadership coming into the city, this might be a time for all our regional administrations to come together with the private sector, examine the role of government in business, and see if Detroit and other locales offer models that will kick our economic environment up several more notches.

Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.


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