Listening Tour: 5 things Metromode learned about Pontiac's entrepreneurial ecosystem

Metromode is on tour.


It’s a listening tour. We're traveling to four cities in Metro Detroit to hear from local entrepreneurs and the folks working to help them succeed.


At top of mind: As Midtown and Downtown Detroit boom, what strategies do Metro Detroit's suburban communities have to grow their entrepreneurial ecosystems, both in cooperation with Detroit and independently?


Our work, funded by the Davidson Foundation and executed in partnership with Bill Sullivan Enterprises, is all about convening conversations to help us better understand what’s working--and what's not--to support small-scale entrepreneurs across some of Metro Detroit’s larger urban communities.


Our third stop was Pontiac, where last week we met with 19 small business owners, entrepreneurs, creatives, placemakers, local economic development officials, and nonprofit leaders.


We asked them three simple questions: what does entrepreneurship look like in Pontiac today, what assets and resources do entrepreneurs use, and where are the opportunities for building a better future?


What resulted was a rich conversation that we hope will continue. Read here for summaries of our conversations in Dearborn and Mt. Clemens. Our last stop: Ypsilanti.


Here’s what we learned in Pontiac:

  1. Parallel cities, parallel sectors.


Many of our participants felt there are currently three separate entrepreneurial sectors in Pontiac.


The first sector is very focused on downtown Pontiac and tends to be composed of brick-and-mortar businesses. These businesses tend to be connected within downtown Pontiac and to one another, and they have the knowledge and connections necessary to navigate the business landscape. Often the owners of these businesses have substantive financial resources, tend to not live in Pontiac, and tend to be white. The second group is focused on building arts, entertainment, service and retail businesses within downtown.


The second sector would like to see downtown Pontiac become a strong hub and job center for technology businesses, and has a vision for branding downtown Pontiac as a regional tech hub and jobs magnet. This group also tends to have substantive financial resources, tends to not live in Pontiac, and tends to be white.


The third sector is composed of informal, underground-economy, neighborhood-based businesses. These include people working mainly out of their homes providing products and services, often food-, craft-, or service-based. The owners of these businesses tend to be people of color, they tend to live in Pontiac and tend to have very limited access to financial resources. This group feels less welcome in downtown Pontiac, tend not to patronize downtown businesses. They see downtown as “not for them.”


What all groups seem to have in common is a deep, emotional sense of attachment to place in Pontiac, an interest in being part of the solution and openness and interest in working together on fostering more cohesive community. The question is how to cultivate this strong sense of place into coordinated community action.


The connections between these sectors are tenuous; for the most part, they operate in parallel, independent of one another. They may cross paths occasionally in places like the Alleycat Cafe. There is currently no clear mechanism in the city to bridge the gap between the groups so that they can learn from one another.


There are bright spots in the form of informal efforts led by grassroots entrepreneurs to foster community building. This represents an opportunity for Pontiac to build on organic efforts in fostering better communication and connections. Downtown and tech businesses need city residents as patrons, and city residents miss out by not participating in downtown.

  1. There can be no one-size-fits-all strategy when it comes to Pontiac’s entrepreneurs and the services they need.


Following from observation number one, the group agreed that while Pontiac does not have a strategic plan to encourage entrepreneurship, any strategy moving forward would need to acknowledge and involve the entire ecosystem.


Such a strategy would provide infrastructure to meet the needs of the more established, brick-and-mortar businesses while also cultivating micro-enterprises to build a rich and diverse ecosystem of entrepreneurship opportunity in Pontiac.


Higher-resourced businesses would like to see more assistance from the city regarding streamlining permits and navigating bureaucracy. They'd like to see the city undertake a marketing program to help promote Pontiac as a place for experimentation and entrepreneurship, citing the affordable real estate and downtown assets as main attractions. All agreed that some sort of entry point or resource portal for entrepreneurs looking to get started or involved would be valuable.


The informal economy in Pontiac needs more basic services such as business planning, market research, accounting, taxes, and understanding permitting and state laws. They also need better connections to markets for their products and services. It was encouraging to note that many of these types of resources were being informally created and implemented through existing grassroots networks.


As we observed with previous communities, the number and type of resources for entrepreneurs are fragmented and difficult to access within Oakland County. Participants cited many incubators, accelerators, and business assistance entities, including Automation Alley, the LTU Collaboratory, The Oakland University Incubator, the SBDC, SCORE, and the Oakland County Business Center, as well as additional incubation within private corporations.


Participants noted that many of these entities offer duplicative services. Often, entrepreneurs bounce between several of these entities before finding the information needed. Moreover, these resources can be hard to access for the informal economy entrepreneur group due to transportation and other challenges.


Any strategy for entrepreneurship in the city must take into account the diverse needs of its stakeholders and endeavor to be inclusive of all of them.

  1. Pontiac needs leadership to support entrepreneurialism.


We observed a gap in thought and communication between resource providers, economic development institutions, and entrepreneurs in Pontiac. We also observed a lack of a leadership voice encouraging an entrepreneurial community and promoting the importance of entrepreneurship as part of a comprehensive economic development plan.


We learned of two entrepreneurial support groups in the city. The Main Street Pontiac group, which focuses exclusively on downtown and is under-resourced. Downtown entrepreneurs are primarily driving this group. Another group focused on black women business owners caters to the needs of that group.


Oakland County has resources and expressed an interest in supporting entrepreneurialism in Pontiac, but it is disconnected from the needs of the community. There are no programs to "meet people where they are”; entrepreneurs of color expressed concern about lack of transportation access to County buildings and not feeling of welcome there.


Every formal resource mentioned was not administered in Pontiac. Pontiac entrepreneurs are forced to drive in order to access resources or develop locally invented informal resources and networks to fill the gap. A good starting place for a cohesive strategy might be a plan to better network these groups.

  1. Pontiac needs to align its community institutions.


Many strong cities have strong, connected infrastructure to support the development of entrepreneurship. These elements may include strong philanthropy, excellent and efficient government, strong anchor institutions like hospitals and universities.


Pontiac has pieces of some of these but lacks others, particularly locally focused philanthropy. We observed a need for an economic development plan that aligns existing community institutions on a cohesive economic development strategy that prioritizes entrepreneurship in multiple sectors.

  1. Communication and networks are key to moving forward.


Participants generally agreed on one thing: Pontiac needs a central source of information sharing. They cited a need for a business directory to help people in the community know what businesses are available, and a resource directory to help entrepreneurs locate resources and events that can help support entrepreneurship.


They’d also like to see an ongoing cross-city conversation continue, and an ongoing infrastructure of communication that can help build a foundation for all entrepreneurs in the community. Members acknowledged that resources are needed to make this happen, and noted the lack of local philanthropy as one major hindrance to moving forward in this area.


They’d like to see Pontiac be better connected to regional strategies for economic growth, and for institutions to consider investing in Pontiac. One example of such a missed opportunity cited was the installation of a Medical School on the campus of Oakland University in Auburn Hills and Rochester Hills, while hospitals exist in Pontiac.


Communicating the assets and potential within Pontiac to the larger region would be one step towards addressing that gap.

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