From the Director: New Study Highlights Need for Immigrant Inclusion in Revitalization of Detroit’s Commercial Corridors

By Steve Tobocman

This past week, the Fiscal Policy Institute, in conjunction with the America’s Society and Council of the Americas (AS/COA) released groundbreaking new research about the importance and prevalence of America’s immigrants in building and sustaining Main Street commercial retail businesses. While only 13 percent of America, immigrants make up fully 28 percent of the owners of “Main Street businesses,” defined as retail, accommodation and food services, and neighborhood service businesses.

Main Street Business OwnersMore specifically, immigrant entrepreneurs own 58 percent of dry cleaners, 53 percent of grocery stores, 38 percent of restaurants, 32 percent of all clothing stores, 28 percent of department and discount stores, and 25 percent of electronics, radio, television, and computer stores. In short, this research suggests that as Detroit’s planners, government leaders, nonprofits, foundations, and others seek to develop and implement strategies to revitalize Detroit’s neighborhoods, as well as to continue the growth of downtown and Midtown commercial districts, they had best consider the role that immigrants play, can play, and will play. Anything less is to turn one’s back to a significant source of investment, risk-taking, ingenuity, hard work, and opportunity.

Immigrant-owned Main Street businesses earn $13 billion annually, provide a critical source of first jobs for many in the American workforce, and “play an important role in generating neighborhood-level economic growth by making these areas attractive places to live and work,” according to the report.

On Wednesday, January 14, I attended the release of the study in New York City, which included a roundtable discussion between the study’s author David Kallick and representatives from the three metros that received more in-depth treatment and analysis—Minneapolis/St. Paul, Nashville, and Philadelphia.

Global Detroit has relied upon David Kallick’s work in the past, quoting extensively from his immigrant labor analysis in 2009 for the original Global Detroit study, and inviting Kallick to help launch the Global Great Lakes Network in Detroit in June 2013. Traditionally, David has been helpful in tempering my descriptions of immigrant entrepreneurialism, critiquing drafts of several documents, reports, and emails about the data used. Given our dialogue about the numbers, I was somewhat surprised to see such bold conclusions by the report and feel very confident in the study’s statistical conclusions.

The roundtable discussion included Global Detroit’s friend and partner Mihailo Temali of the Neighborhood Development Center (NDC) in Minneapolis/St. Paul. As you may know, Global Detroit has worked hard to bring NDC to Detroit, helping to launch ProsperUS Detroit with the generous support of the Kellogg Foundation and New Economy Initiative at Southwest Housing. To date ProsperUS has partnered with a dozen neighborhood organizations to train nearly 300 low-income African-American, Latino, and immigrant Detroit residents to launch businesses in five targeted Detroit neighborhoods.

In addition to documenting the incredible impact immigrant Main Street businesses have had on American cities and neighborhoods, the report makes some important recommendations for local and state government. Fortunately, the work of Global Detroit and its partners seems to follow or align well with these policy suggestions:

  • Establish a climate of welcoming (Welcoming Michigan – Michigan Immigrant Rights Center; Welcome Mat Detroit; and various communications and governmental partnerships)
  • Create a government office to address immigrant integration (Michigan Office for New Americans; Detroit City Council Immigration Task Force; and work with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s office)
  • Provide a culturally competent business training and services (ProsperUS Detroit; and ACCESS Growth)
  • Make sure programs are open to all
  • Be attentive to the challenges undocumented immigrants face (ProsperUS Detroit)
  • Take advantage of the valuable services refugee resettlement agencies offer (ACCESS Growth)
  • Make financing innovative and community-based (ProsperUS Detroit)
  • Link financing to training and business support (ProsperUS Detroit)
  • Establish some incubators, especially commercial kitchens
  • Improve licensing and inspections for everyone (work with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s office)
  • Use place-based development strategies to help Main Street businesses build neighborhoods
  • Expand the reach of chambers of commerce and trade or interest groups
  • Help manage cultural and economic tensions
  • Pay attention to wages for workers

While we have more infrastructure to develop and systems to improve, Global Detroit, the city of Detroit, the metro region, and the State of Michigan have made great strides over the past several years. We look forward to building upon these early elements and, especially, to helping the city and regional leadership understand the opportunity for immigrant inclusion in revitalizing neighborhoods and the region.

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