Blog: Aaron Alston

Aaron Alston is the CEO of Cadre Systems and a co-owner of Candor Marketing. He is also a co-managing member of Vinton Building, LLC and a board member with CreateDetroit.

Aaron will be writing about how we should view Detroit; as a glass half empty or a glass half full? 

Continue the conversation with your comments!

metromode's guest blogger series runs on a bi-weekly schedule through the summer. We will return to weekly bloggers starting in September.
Aaron Alston - Most Recent Posts:

Post No. 3

Paradigm Shift

Several weeks ago I attended one of Model D's speaker series featuring quest speakers Carol Colletta (President of CEO's for Cities) and professor Lou Glazer of U of M.. I was intrigued to hear that Detroit, out of 70 cities across the U.S. with populations of 250,000 or more according to Ms. Colletta's research, ranked 11th in the of number of creative sector workers – the often coveted, well educated, new economy resource. I wondered, how could this be true considering all the talk about this regions' need to develop a creative sector. Where are these folks? 

I paused and thought for a second… Detroit is home to the College for Creative Studies (CCS) that has produced many award winning designers such as Ralph Gales (Designer of the Chrysler 300) and others, and there is a large representation of the world's largest advertising agencies. 

Ms. Colletta went on to explain, that unlike the mappings of creative talent in other flourishing cities by where creative talent is concentrated around one central core, Detroit's talent is scattered all about the metropolitan area. And her studies have shown that cities that have been able to cluster its creative talent around a core are more likely to produce communities that are vibrant, productive, and desirable.

This helps to explain how Detroit can be ranked 11 th in the country in creative talent and still find those who feel as if, socially, they live on an island, miles away from the sight of another creative person. As a result, we continue to hear the all too common claim, "I'm here because of my job however as soon as I find something else, I'm outa here." Compounding the problem, a growing number of the creative class professions are being affected by the pinch from the contracting auto industry and the ripple effect it has had on this whole region – leaving many creative works without employment. 

Now without a job and a social reason to stay in Detroit, we stand to loose much of our creative talent to other cities in other states that are better at cultivating a centralized core of creative talent that helps in both attracting new talent and retaining talent that is already there. It will be cities that nurture this sort of clustering of creative talent that will fair best in the growing global competition of talent attraction. 

Attracting talent, according to scholars such as University of Michigan's Lou Glazer and George Mason University's Richard Florida, is one of the greatest challenge facing cities and or regions today. Richard Florida suggests in his book "The Flight of the Creative Class" that wherever the creative class lands, high paying knowledge jobs will follow. So, in other words, cities that wish to compete successfully for high wage employers must first crack the code on attracting talent - talent attraction matters. This can be validated by tracking the growth patterns of some of America's leading emerging cities such as Columbus Ohio, Austin Texas, and Portland Oregon. All of which have leveraged universities, urban residential developments, and strategic cultural activities and entertainment events to create a catalyst for growth. 

In a city that helped usher in the industrial revolution and initiated the mass migration from the south to the north in part by Henry Fords' advertised offer of $5 per hour pay for 8 hours work, it is easy to understand the difficulty for many of our leaders to accept this shifting paradigm of jobs following talent. Unfortunately, many of these same leaders still exclaim that all we need to do to cure the ills of this city is to create good paying jobs. However, attempting to do so without recognizing the changing landscape would prove to be a futile effort. We need to identify and support those leaders who "get it" and that will eventually go on to become as influential as the Henry Ford was in shaping the success of this region. 

What do you think and who do you think "Gets it?"

Post No. 2

Embrace what you are and never stop perfecting

Today while I was surfing the net I came across an interesting article on how parents can identify the symptoms of low self-esteem in a child. As I was reading through some of the symptoms, I had a crazy thought – could Metro Detroit be suffering from a low self-esteem. I read on, and symptoms like, blame, denial, and dependency on acceptance from others came up and I became convinced. 

Sure, that’s it. Many of us spend so much of our time blaming someone else for all the problems our region faces. There is always one person who's in denial about the things that are not right about Detroit and one who over exaggerates the things that are. Yet the one that bothers me most is the one that continues to look for acceptance from someone outside the region to feel good about being a Detroiter. I’m sure we all know one or two of these types. 

To the contrary, we should be embracing what Detroit is, accepting the things that it isn’t, and perfecting the things that we want it to be. How coincidental, those are the same words of advice for combating the disorder of low self-esteem. Therefore, we must stop trying to convince people that were something we’re not. We cannot be LA, Chicago, or New York. That just isn’t believable to outsiders or ourselves. That means no more Sammy Davis Jr. remakes of a Sinatra’s New York, New York.    

Someone who has taken advantage of and has embraced the uniqueness of Detroit is the local Ad agency Campbell-Ewald. The Warren based agency has received great response to their latest image makeover where they make the bold claim: "There is no substitute for industrial-strength creativity. There is no easy route to brilliance. You learn these things in a city like Detroit. Where determination and heart win out over smoke and mirrors. It’s no wonder we build our client’s brands with passion, trust and respect. Whether it’s from our people in L.A., New York, D.C., or Atlanta, the heart and soul is still Detroit." 

The point is to take pride in the rich heritage of our city and project an image that is flattering yet believable.  

Another way in which we can combat the symptoms of low self-esteem is to let our citizens have a voice.  Instead of coming up with expensive ad campaigns that are discounted fifty percent on sight (by the mere fact that it is an ad), we should let the citizens sell our city and our state. What’s more believable to an outsider who wants to know if there are exciting cultural activities, entertainment events, and work environments than reading about someone who is participating in one?

An excellent example of citizen journalism is a site developed by BrainGain Marketing called Every week it features fresh stories mostly contributed by ordinary citizens. This is how we can overcome our low self-esteem disorder, by getting Detroiters involved in making a difference.  What are you waiting for? 

Post No. 1

A House Is Not A Home 

As I move through various social and professional circles in Metro Detroit I hear people talking about Detroit's need for "this" and lack of "that." There’s the ubiquitous bearer of bad news with his rally cry “the sky is falling” and the constant naysayer who revels in the misery of others. However, in small pockets about town I also hear a whisper --which I hope will soon be a shout-- of the many unique and positive things that exist and are happening within our city. The voices that make up this whisper are people who, I believe, view Detroit as a house in which it is their role to make a home.

It can be argued that a house is not a home without the care and attention of inhabitants who fill it with all the things they need to make it their own. This too applies to Detroit. Making Detroit a home requires that its inhabitants, both suburban and urban, adopt a different perspective on who takes responsibility for our city's need for "this" and the lack of "that."

There are a growing number of individuals who have embraced this perspective and are committed to play a role, be it small or large, in the betterment of our house. This can be found in individual home owners who form block clubs, in developers like David Bing and Bernard Glieberman, in business owners like Peter Karmanos and, hopefully, Dan Gilbert who make it their responsibility to create the kind of city they want for themselves and others. 

In mid 2004 I too felt the calling to play my own role in making Detroit my home --both figuratively and literally. My business partner and I were having a phone conversation about community wealth building and I just so happened to mention to him a wild idea of mine: to search for an abandon city-owned building of no more than 50,000 square feet that we could buy for one dollar and restore to its original grandeur. To my surprise he said, "I have a 50,000 square foot building that I did a walk through of in early March. However, the bid package is due on this property in two weeks." I jumped right on it and assured him that I would be able to put something together before the deadline.

I remember after hanging up saying to myself, “what did I commit myself to?” I had no prior experience as a developer and I wasn’t sure I could meet the deadline.  
Well, we met the deadline and after the city review was complete, our proposal tied for first place among nine other bids. I caught wind that the other team was made up of seven different guys in their 30s who lived in and around the central business district and only wanted to own their own unit in this twelve story building to live in. Someone had the foresight to ask the two remaining teams to sit down to see if we could work out an agreement to merge. Since this project was the first of what I hoped to be many for my partner and me, and we were completely speculating on the development, it made sense for us to work out some form of agreement. We formed a multi-cultural group of beginner developers, all within their 30s, to purchase the Vinton building for $500,000 from the city and develop it into luxury loftominiums with first floor retail and second floor commercial space. 

I guess the excitement of being a part of this development and interacting with the great group guys on its team energized me so much, I decided to move both Candor Marketing Group (based in Troy) and my Birmingham residence to the Vinton Building as one small step towards making this wonderful house (Detroit) into a home.