Listening Tour: 6 things Metromode learned about Mt. Clemens' 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.


After our first stop in Dearborn, last week we headed to the east side where we met with 14 small business owners, entrepreneurs, creatives, placemakers, local economic development officials, and nonprofit leaders at The coLABorative, a coworking space in downtown Mt. Clemens, affectionately known to its denizens as “The Clem”.


We asked them three simple questions: what does entrepreneurship look like in Mt. Clemens 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. Our next stops: Pontiac, and Ypsilanti.


Here’s what we learned in Mt. Clemens:

  1. Mt. Clemens has “great bones.” But it needs a cohesive plan to flesh out its potential as an entrepreneurial hub.


Most of those we met with agree: Mt. Clemens has “great bones.”


What they mean is that some assets are in place--if a little rough around the edges--to build a vibrant community for entrepreneurs.


Those assets include historic buildings, walkable neighborhoods, an authentic historic downtown, and the Clinton River, which flows through town and is increasingly being utilized as a recreational water trail.


Placemakers have been active in recent years polishing those bones. The city has invested in streetscape infrastructure and public art and built a new kayak launch on the riverfront. As one of the largest employers in Mt. Clemens, Macomb County has invested more than $65 million in a capital program to bolster its operations in the City through modernized facilities and additional staff. Advancing Macomb, the county’s nonprofit economic development arm, has based itself in the downtown. There’s more to be done, but the efforts to make downtown Mt. Clemens an attractive place to be and hopefully, to start a business, are underway.


Still, most also agreed they’d like to see a collaborative plan, led by entrepreneurs and economic development leadership, to build a true strategy for cultivating entrepreneurship in town. Because without that, the bones are fragile. We observed strong silos and a disconnect between resource partners. Without addressing those issues, it will be difficult for Mt. Clemens to realize its potential.


Such an effort might start with a comprehensive, collaborative downtown development strategy that prioritizes and actively recruits entrepreneurship. It should capitalize on assets such as the riverfront and more options for daytime workers that can help build on foot traffic, and an increased friendliness towards youth and artists (read on for more on that).

  1. People from “The Clem” have an abiding loyalty to the town and each other. Newcomers may need an extra welcome.


Mt. Clemens is rich in history and full of dedicated residents who can trace their lineage back generations in the town. It’s an excellent foundation for a tight-knit community.


However, newer entrepreneurs and residents acknowledged sometimes feeling just a bit like an outsider, sometimes even after being in the city for years.


The Downtown Development Authority tries to change that perception by welcoming and connecting potential entrepreneurs with local resources. But the group agrees that building a strong network of younger, entrepreneurial newcomers in the community, and making them feel welcome and connected, is critical to moving forward.


They’d like to connect like-minded people and provide models of how businesses can succeed in Mt. Clemens, to not only give the next person a leg-up but also to connect them to resources like public sector and nonprofit business assistance.

  1. Mt. Clemens is a “diamond in the rough.” But more needs to be done to support early-comers.


The real estate is affordable--both commercial and residential. The commuter traffic in and out is light. That combination of affordability and accessibility presents a golden opportunity for pioneers to come in and help what some members agree is a “diamond in the rough” shine.


One side effect of this state is that it creates a sort of “chicken and the egg” problem for entrepreneurs. Cafe's have tried to stay open for lunch; coffee shops have come and gone. The market is not mature enough yet to support the type of places entrepreneurs need.


Mt. Clemens might take a page from other cities to help subsidize key business while the market moves to the Clem--whether that’s through rental assistance, pop-ups, or incubators.

"There's plenty of room for more innovators in Mt. Clemens and a great opportunity to be a part of the first group of ‘new’ people in the door," says Melissa Roy, executive director for Advancing Macomb.


The group would like to see that narrative packaged into a “Mount Clemens Story” that can be shared with potential entrepreneurs to let them know that the barriers to entry here are minimal, and any imprint they may have on this community can be lasting and transforming.

  1. There’s a budding artist scene in ”The Clem,” and more can be done to build on it.


The Anton Art Center in downtown Mt. Clemens has been around since 1969, but it got a significant lift in 2005 when it undertook a $1.6 million renovation of its home, the historic Carnegie Library.


That renovation and expansion have allowed the center to increase its offerings to the community through exhibitions, classes, and workshops. The Anton Art Center also hosts markets where local creators can sell their wares, such as the holiday market where last year 25 participating artists grossed $65,000 in sales.


As one of the county’s leading arts organizations (the other being Performing Arts Center at Macomb Community College), it finds itself as a go-to for helping creative entrepreneurs figure out how to make a living at their craft and offers mini-grants to county residents.


In Metro Detroit, as real estate in traditional creative artist hubs like Detroit, Ferndale, and Royal Oak get more expensive, there is an opportunity for Mt. Clemens to position itself as the next urban frontier.


The group would like to see more focus on creating live-work and coworking spaces for artists and building infrastructure for them in Mt. Clemens, such as supply shops like a Blick’s or Green's. The community would also like to find ways to better help artists with funding, professional development, and business planning.

  1. The city needs to embrace a culture shift to attract youth and entrepreneurs.


People seem to agree on one thing: Mount Clemens needs a place where people can sit down and have a cup of coffee and WiFi.


Some would like to see a more friendly environment for young, artsy kids, with amenities to encourage them to visit the town, both regarding retail and features like skateboard parks. They’d like to see a bit more friendliness toward whimsy, like sidewalk chalk and murals, which city officials have looked askance at in the past. Several participants expressed the view that city and county leaders must understand this movement as essential to the city’s future and invest accordingly.


Even if that sometimes means allowing people to draw on the sidewalk with chalk.

  1. Mt. Clemens needs to tell a new story to get “on the regional map.”


Finally, stakeholders mostly agreed that Mt. Clemens may have a regional image problem that it must work to overcome.


Many believed that people in the region but outside of the county don't know where Mt. Clemens is located.


Some claimed that people drive right through Mt. Clemens and don't even know it's there, something that is made possible by the routing of major roads around the city.


“There are no conversations about the city outside of the city,” claims one participant.


Part of putting Mt. Clemens on the map might involve concentrating resources here, something that is a challenge in Michigan’s “home rule” environment. Participants point to the multiple shopping malls, retail corridors and farmers’ markets across the county that can tend to dilute a sense of community and a strong central downtown.


“We have to tell 'em, come to Mount Clemens,” says Tony Prainito of Hanna Development and Management, who owns the Emerald Theater in downtown Mt. Clemens. “We have to be the cheerleaders of this town, and to believe that we can do it.”

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