While Dearborn wouldn’t be the city it is without big corporations like Ford Motor Co. calling it home, local leaders recognize the value of small businesses and are working on several programs to help them thrive.
Organizations in Dearborn offer entrepreneurs everything from business startup training to site selection assistance. More seasoned business owners can take advantage of the marketing and promotions offered by two Downtown Development Authorities and the Dearborn Area Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber, which boasts more than 600 members, hosts several networking events each year along with educational breakfasts and luncheons. About half the members are big companies, and half are small businesses, said Chamber President Jackie Lovejoy.
“In this environment, my joke is I’m not going to give my life savings to a financial manager that I met on the internet,” Lovejoy says.
“Even though we do so much with technology, people still like to meet you. So providing all these networking opportunities … it gets them in front of a base they haven’t normally seen.”
Business owner Tom Clark said he’s picked up customers from meeting people at Chamber events. Clark, who opened Village Picture Framing and Art Gallery 35 years ago, said he’s noticed more small businesses starting to open in the area after having lost a lot of establishments.
“Just in our little strip here (on Michigan Avenue), there are quite a few independents, and they seem to be doing very well,” Clark says. Things are changing, I think since Ford is building the property down the street here, I think more small businesses will come in, and I think we’ll start thriving again, as we used to years ago.”
He credits Ford with helping to bring in younger people who want to live, eat and play in the area. Clark says he’s seen more young clientele who are working on their homes and come into his shop for framing and artwork.
Clark is not alone in his excitement for Ford’s Wagner Place development, which will include offices for about 600 employees along with restaurants and retail space to west downtown Dearborn.
“Right now it’s a great time because they’re putting in Wagner Place and Dearborn is definitely on the upswing right now,” says Nick Harris, manager at Painting with a Twist, which opened last year on Michigan Avenue.
The Ford development has been a big kickstart to attracting more businesses, Lovejoy said. But even before that project, local leaders were working on filling vacant storefronts. Slowly, west downtown Dearborn went from a 38 percent occupancy rate to more than 95 percent on the ground floor, Lovejoy said.
The West Dearborn Downtown Development Authority is trying to increase the number of innovative retail businesses in its district, since it has far more restaurants than stores. While the growth of online shopping has hurt brick-and-mortar stores, small retailers have the advantage of being able to offer unique experiences that can’t be achieved online or at big-box stores, said WDDDA Executive Director Cristina Sheppard-Decius.
“I coach our small retailers. If they can build that lifestyle and experience of going shopping at their store and getting the word out about that, and creating more opportunities there within the store as opposed to just selling a product, they will have a higher return on sales,” she says.
The WDDDA works on business development, recruitment and retention along with infrastructure improvements to west downtown Dearborn. When someone is considering opening a business in the area, the association provides market research and analysis to help determine whether the business is a right fit and where it should locate. It helps entrepreneurs find space for their business and guides them through the permitting process with the city.
The association helps established small businesses through events and promotions aimed at bringing more people downtown. It’s teaming up with the East Dearborn DDA to form Downtown Dearborn Inc., an umbrella organization that hopes to partner on marketing, promotions and offering resources and economic development initiatives to the city’s downtowns and corridors.
The WDDDA hopes to offer a business startup financial incentive within the next year and is looking to launch a façade improvement program. It’s also working with Henry Ford College, the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the nonprofit organization ACCESS to put together an incubator for startups and venture growth businesses.
She hopes to focus on specific industries that fit the community. For example, since Dearborn is well known for its food, the incubator could be a resource for further growth of that industry. The East Dearborn DDA already recruited a developer to open Artspace Lofts in the former city hall, featuring affordable live/work space for artists.
Several Artspace residents recently learned the basics of starting and running a business in a class offered by the Growth Center at the Arab American National Museum. The center, which is part of ACCESS, offers courses in English and Arabic. Participants learn how to develop business and marketing plans and are exposed to other community organizations that offer further business resources.
“It’s adult learning, so it’s very interactive,” says Growth Center Supervisor Audrey Ramadan. “They’re going over anything from a marketing plan, finances, profits, how long do you stay in business … it’s very in-depth and thorough.”
Students pay a $75-$125 fee, but the majority of the course cost is covered by the Growth Center. Graduates of the Arabic language class who are refugees or political asylees can receive one-on-one coaching sessions and apply for a microloan of up to $10,000 to help pay for starting costs.
About 20 people have graduated from the course this year, and the center hopes to have 20 more by the end of the year, Ramadan says.
While some graduates aren’t yet ready to open a business, others have already launched. Other students attend the course to help take existing businesses to the next level.
“I’ve had an Iraqi refugee who used to be a general physician and surgeon back in Iraq come here, go through our programming, and has already registered and opened his import/export shipping company,” she says. “You have those who are here, and they are determined … and they are looking to be serious and start their American dream here.”