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440 Burroughs St.
Detroit, Michigan 48202

Leslie Smith

By Amy Kuras
December 16, 2013

When TechTown launched in 2000, it was a product of its time – tech-focused and heady with the promise of this new fad called the Internet. We all know how that story ends –but TechTown’s latest chapter is just beginning.
When the tech bubble burst, TechTown found itself in a position of working with more lifestyle businesses – the kind of things that make for a vibrant city life, but were not the wow-inducing technological and scientific spinoffs TechTown originally was founded to nurture.
With the arrival of President and CEO Leslie Smith in 2010, they began to shift their focus back toward helping launch and accelerate new tech businesses coming out of the universities as well as taking their expertise on helping small businesses into the neighborhoods which have been largely left out of the excitement of the renaissance happening downtown and in Midtown.
It’s all part of sending the ripples of economic development at the city’s core toward the far-flung neighborhoods of the city, says Smith. "We decided, why not take all of that expertise at Tech One and provide it to the neighborhoods?" she says. "At the same time, understanding we are living in a city that does not provide a transportation infrastructure, we had to bring access to the neighborhoods."
SWOT City is designed to do that. SWOT City is not only a major retail attraction program, but a grassroots initiative designed to be sustainable and allow neighborhoods to attract and retain the businesses they most need. They don’t even begin working with business until they have developed partnership with a neighborhood-based community agency and conducted a SWOT (Strengths, Opportunities, Weaknesses, and Threats) analysis on a neighborhood level. This helps them create an neighborhood-wide engagement plan that will help the neighborhood retain and attract business after SWOT CTY winds up its work.
SWOT City also works with the community to find neighborhood-essential businesses that are on the verge of failure, and works with them to maximize revenues. In some cases, they’ve taken them from almost failing, to growing their revenues by two or three times what they were making, ensuring that they can stay in their neighborhood and even grow.
Sometimes those coaching aspects are simple – encouraging business owners to hire neighborhood residents as a way to create community connections, or simply make sure their signage is visible and the building and parking area are well lit. Sometimes it’s more technical, such as introducing inventory management systems.
They also hold frequent "tune-ups" with would-be entrepreneurs and can develop custom programs, depending on what a neighborhood most needs, Smith says. "We’re helping to create resources in the neighborhoods, but don’t hold they key to all of them in our tool belt."

TechTown recently was awarded an $800,00 federal grant to expand the program to East Jefferson, Grandmont–Rosedale and Osborn.
"We want to show ways that we can kind of change the way inner city economic development is thought about," says Smith.
Eventually, they’d like to have graduates from their tech developer program locate in some of the neighborhoods, creating higher-skilled, higher-wage jobs.
In refocusing on technological acceleration and development, TechTown also refocused on their role as a pipeline for development from the university research institutions, industrial partners and healthcare partners. "We saw that as critical opportunity and obligation for TechTown," Smith says. "We really started working on uncovering some of the untapped potential in local universities and healthcare systems." That means strengthening relationships with Wayne State, University of Detroit Mercy, and the College for Creative Studies, as well as the University of Windsor. That led to the Launch Detroit program over the summer, which brought together students from the local universities to work on potential entrepreneurial projects together. "What was really kind of beautiful about that was that it was not only technology from our local universities but all of the student teams had members from each school. It was a real blending of institutional talent," Smith says.
They’ve also had one cohort go through their Venture Accelerator program, which is a rigorous, highly competitive program that takes businesses from early-stage to fully-fledged businesses. The second cohort is going through the program now.
While these two paths of their work may seem divergent, they both speak to the missions of making the city a place of opportunity for everyone, Smith says, even with Detroit’s multiple challenges.  "People look at things as if there is a financial or mathematical formula, and the factor you can’t plug into a mathematical forum is people, and community, and hope," Smith says. "You have an obligation to do multiple things at the same time while many of the elements of the equation are missing…but what you can’t do is say, 'This problem is too hard.'"

All photos by Doug Coombe. 

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