Listening Tour: 4 things Metromode learned about Ypsilanti's entrepreneurial ecosystem

This article originally ran in Concentrate's sister publication, Metromode.
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 tour took us to four communities: Dearborn, Mt. Clemens, Pontiac, and our final stop: Ypsilanti, where we met with 16 placemakers, entrepreneurs and resource providers.


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


Here’s what we learned:

  1. Ypsi sees itself as a city on the upswing.


The Great Recession was no kinder to Ypsilanti than it was to other communities.


But it came on the heels of an earlier downtown in 2002-2003. During this period, thousands of jobs and people left the community, city and township funding were gutted, two school districts were merged, and the local government was nearly placed under state emergency management. Downtown and commercial occupancy rates were as low as 10-15 percent.


Today, the city is making a comeback. Events like YpsiGLOW, the Parkridge Summer Fest, DIYpsi, the Farmers Market, and the Black Business Block Party have sparked a creative, community-oriented vibe.


New businesses, restaurants coffee shops, a vibrant urban farming movement, and more are creating a feeling of hope and excitement in Ypsilanti. That view is shared by entrepreneurs, both new and old, who see the city, with it’s scrappy, can-do spirit and relatively affordable real estate, as fertile ground for their ventures.

  1. More communication and strategy is needed.


As with the other cities we met with, a lack of communication and coordination within the entrepreneurial community was noted as a key challenge. Stakeholders felt an absence of connectivity and leadership around entrepreneurship, both in the downtown area and outside of it.


A significant amount of churn has taken place within both the city and township of Ypsilanti with respect to leadership and staffing, but stakeholders expressed optimism about the direction local institutions, particularly the DDA, are taking.


Still, they noted a high degree of silo-ism and fragmentation among various resource providers; from private real estate agents to city government to the chamber to workforce development agencies. Participants described how informal networks influence what resources people are connected to, and that not all people know how to tap into those resources. The community has some work to do toward building an inclusive entrepreneurial spirit.


Business owners, in particular, pointed to a need for leadership, coordination, and communication to connect existing and would-be entrepreneurs to each other and to resource providers. Entrepreneurs need help to navigate the bevy of challenges all new business owners face, including real estate, permits, insurance, taxes, etc.

  1. Municipal and regional fragmentation is a challenge.


Participants noted municipal and regional fragmentation as significant obstacles to coordinating entrepreneurs with resources.


At the local level, the divide between Ypsi city and township creates what several participants noted as needless obstacles in services. The city and township chambers were merged 8 years ago, and the township recently hired its own economic development director. Several people noted a need for closer coordination and sharing of more services to streamline the process for entrepreneurs. Participants would like to see a comprehensive economic development coordinated between the city and township that prioritizes inclusive entrepreneurship as a primary tactic.


A similar obstacle was noted with respect to the larger region. For example, micro-loan programs that are available to nearby Wayne County communities are not available to Ypsilanti. Members also felt that regional economic development initiatives, such as the American Center for Mobility, tend to happen without the voice of Ypsi residents and elected officials. Participants wonder how and whether the city and township resources invested into this project will pay off for the people of Ypsilanti.

  1. Proximity to entrepreneurial superstars Ann Arbor and Detroit leaves Ypsi feeling a bit left behind.


While being situated right between the entrepreneurial powerhouses of Detroit and Ann Arbor would seem to be a boon, many participants felt overshadowed and a bit neglected by their successful neighbors. Participants noted a feeling of insularity from the larger region that needs to be overcome to connect with opportunity.


Ypsi has a scrappy reputation, they noted, something it has had to earn without a local benefactor or philanthropy organization.


One bright spot has been the funding arrangement for the Ann Arbor SmartZone, whereby tax captured in Ann Arbor can be spent (with limitations) in Ypsilanti. But in most cases, the lion’s share of state and regional economic development resources are shuttled to Ypsi’s bigger neighbors.


But Ypsi perseveres. When participants see resources, programs, and entrepreneurs headed for Detroit and Ann Arbor, they feel a tinge of envy, but also a renewed determination to make Ypsi the best it can be with the resources it has at its disposal.

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