'Innovation District' an Evolving Cluster of Creative Biz

Jul 06

9:00 AM

By Erin Piscopink

Tagged: All Neighborhoods

Read the Crain’s Detroit article in its original format HERE

Detroit's First 'Innovation District' an Evolving Cluster of Creative Biz

Amy Haimerl for
Crain’s Detroit Business

Last month, Mayor Mike Duggan announced the formation of Detroit's first "innovation district," stretching up Woodward Avenue from the riverfront to New Center.

"We have right now some great creative energy occurring in downtown and Midtown," he said at the time. "The focus of the innovation district will be to create an anchor to support neighborhood business incubators across the city."

The announcement came on the heels of a report by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institute that touts such areas as the future economic drivers of cities. The nonprofit cited the activity along Woodward Avenue as an exemplar of the concept.

"These districts, by our definition, are geographic areas where leading-edge anchor institutions and companies cluster and connect with startups, business incubators and accelerators," wrote Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner in the report, The Rise of Innovation Districts: A New Geography of Innovation in America. "They are also physically compact, transit-accessible and technically wired and offer mixed-use housing, office and retail."

Sounds like downtown and Midtown.

In particular, Katz and Wagner cite Dan Gilbert moving his Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures empire into downtown as a catalyst for the district. They see the coming M-1 Rail line as a critical future component because it offers connectivity along the stretch.

But before this was the newly branded innovation district, it was the unofficial "creative corridor," and organizations such as the Detroit Creative Corridor Center have been incubating and growing small creative firms in an attempt to fill its arteries with economic activity.

These businesses — filmmakers, ad agencies, digital media, branding agencies, architects, designers, etc. — have been moving into downtown and Midtown and slowly and organically clustering into distinct centers of activity. Some have moved in from the suburbs, some have come from farther flung locales and some outgrew their space in DC3's New Center incubator. And, of course, they join those that have called these streets home for years.

"The thing we have realized is that we actually have districts within this creative corridor geography," said Matt Clayson, director of DC3, a partnership between theCollege of Creative Studies and Business Leaders for Michigan. "There is a certain density of creative practioners that we did not have four years ago. That's a good 1,100 creative workers. Four years ago, no."

The first cluster centers on Detroit's Grand Circus Park and has become home to many top names in advertising, graphic design and digital media. The new Lowe Campbell Ewald office anchors the eastern edge at Ford Field, surrounded by the Skidmore Studios, Lambert Edwards & Associates and Hudson Editorial offices near the Detroit Opera House. Firms such as Gyro Creative Group and Detroit Lives!are on the western edge, approaching Capitol Park. Plus, there is all of the tech startup activity in the area, with the Madison Building's tenants and Detroit Labs and others on Woodward.

Up the avenue, a retail and design center is emerging at the intersection of Cass and Canfield streets, with interior design firm Patrick Thompson Design holding down the retail floor of the Auburn apartment building along with a host of retailers, including Norah and Hugh, two home-goods stores, and Source Booksellers. Around the corner, retailers Nest and City Bird look onto Shinola's retail headquarters and the new Willys Detroit shop. There also is long-standing retail, such as Spiral Collective.

"It's become a district where one can consume design," Clayson said.

Finally, near DC3 and TechTown Detroit in New Center is a design, research and development hub, thanks to all the anchor institutions that are clustered in the area. The Henry Ford Innovation Institute, part of the Henry Ford Health System campus, is there along with the College of Creative Studies and Wayne State University's coming $90 million biosciences facility.

"This area is all about supporting design startups and research and development," Clayson said.

These three districts didn't form by fiat. Only the New Center cluster was intentional — and only then because it combined the firepower of existing organizations. But in the past four years, the number of creative firms — which is a narrow definition of the business activity happening in the district — has jumped from around 15 to 50, Clayson said, and he's working with five to 10 new businesses a month who are interested in opening.

"The activity around Grand Circus really happened after a few dinners and meetings," Clayson said. "There were no consults paid to figure out that strategy. That's how it should happen in a city: getting the right people around a dinner table or a meeting table."

When Patrick Thompson was looking to open his interior design studio — which is well known for designing the Detroit Institute of Arts' Kresge Court — he was interested in being in Midtown. He didn't realize there was a creative cluster forming, but he liked the activity on the street and wanted to be around other design businesses. So when a first floor retail spot in The Auburn building opened, he moved in last summer.

"As a landmark alone, it's been great," he said. "Everyone is starting to know this area. It's a pretty high-profile area, so it's been beneficial for our business being there."

He also likes having clients right in the neighborhood. The DIA is just up the street, and he recently bid on a significant design project at the Block on Cass Park, the former S.S. Kresge World Headquarters on Second Avenue.

When Philip Lauri began looking for office space for his film-production studio, Detroit Lives!, he was considering any part of the city. He could have ended up in any of the creative clusters or even in other neighborhoods. But now that he's in 2,000 square feet on the 28th floor of the David Stott Building, he sees the cluster forming around him.

"Being in Capitol Park, it seemed like a lot of forces were mobilizing in this particular area around growth, which was enticing," he said. "There was a desire to be downtown, to be close to the other companies, and it just kind of sends a message of establishment."

It hasn't impacted his bottom line, as he tries to grow revenue from $250,000 last year to $500,000 this year, but he still sees the advantage of being around others in the same industry.

"I think the impact is on a goodwill level," he said. "I don't know that proximity to other businesses has grown our books, but it's nice to be able to walk over to Jack Morton Worldwide and other clients."

Clayson sees the clusters as nascent in their formation. There is so much more work to be done, he said. DC3 is creating a heat map to be able to visually show the activity and working on a long-term strategy that integrates with the mayor's new innovation district.

"That will result in additional business clustering and concentrating there," he said. "Right now it's still a fraction of what it can be. But a lot has to be done between longtime stakeholders in this innovation district and some of the newcomers. We are looking at how we can serve as a sensitive and appropriate platform."

He'll be working with the mayor's 17-person panel, chaired by Henry Ford Health System's Nancy Schlichting to figure out that future. More clusters can form within the area and stronger ties between businesses can be formed. The mayor views the district as a way to catalyze neighborhood business districts and growth in other areas of the city.

But for Lauri, a Detroit native, things are better than they were three years ago.

"The airplane conversation is totally changing," he said. "It's less guns and more talk about growth."