If foot traffic is the blood that keeps a city living, then locally
developed small businesses are the veins and arteries. They provide
the vibe and the places to explore, the multi-cult textures of people,
buildings, sights and sounds that make a city a great place to be. Beyond
socio-aesthetics and brightly colored square paper bags, small businesses
are also known to provide a large portion of any vibrant city's tax
base. That fact alone would seem reason enough to keep city administrators
pro-actively soliciting small businesses as vigorously as meter maids
seek out cars to ticket.
Unfortunately, wading through city bureaucracy can be a pretty unwelcoming
ordeal for business owners. Three entrepreneurs who've started businesses
within 3 blocks of one another tested the waters. Each has a different
experience to relate - about the past, present and future of doing business
CAMILLION CAFÉ: A DIFFICULT START
four years ago Detroit's donut hole of downtown dearth leapfrogged the
urban chicken-and-egg question: 'What should come first, people ...
or business and places for them to go to?' The city just needed both
Into this void came Julian Rainwater - vibrant co-owner of the Camillian
Cafe - who stood up and said, "Well, here I am." Whether it's
hosting a poetry slam, and evening of jazz or a Carl Craig concert,
the Camillian Cafe is a reflection of the ideals of its owner - a strong
supporter of Motown's vibrant culture.
People warned Rainwater not to come to Detroit. His ideas, they told
him, were too slick, too sophisticated, too contemporary, too positive
for the market. In retrospect he probably just started the Camillian
Unfortunately, in trying to bring a new business to a business starved
city, Rainwater met with a cold shoulder from the Archer administration.
Julian understood why the administration sought to entice huge corporations
with tax incentives. He also knew the city had to be judicious with
its resources - he certainly didn't expect anyone to roll out the red
carpet for a small time player like himself. What he did want was a
fair shot at setting up a business that would serve the new downtown
corporate flags coffee, tea and pastries - in an atmosphere that echoed
his love of jazz. He knew he was taking a big risk, but despite what
everyone told him, he saw no reason that the Camillian Cafe couldn't
"Detroit needed a business like mine right? It should exist here."
Julian initially went to the city to find a small business organization
that would provide a little help and guidance while enduring the maze
of city inspections and permits. He was amazed to find that there was
no department or even person to do so. Since he had worked at one time
for the city and acquired a few connections along the way, he plugged
along -- hoping his old ties would be enough.
"After the construction (of the café) was complete it took
an additional seven months before I was able to acquire the permits
necessary to open the doors."
At a rate of almost $10,000.00 a month his capital to start his business
bled away into an ether of inactivity. At the same time, he was continually
butting heads with unresponsive departments that had overlapping responsibilities,
often getting approval from one department on an issue contingent upon
another's department approval - only to have the second department shoot
his request down.
"I held on though, started with almost nothing. When the doors
opened I was hoping they would be floodgates."
They weren't though: The Casinos weren't open; GM hadn't moved to the
RenCen, and there still wasn't a whiff of Compuware's headquarters in
the air. At least, he thought, he was through dealing with the city's
less then helpful polices. But that didn't turn out to be true either.
Just when he needed it least, out came the flyswatter.
Julian wanted to provide fresh, local pastries to his customers. Starting
out, he sold too few to warrant deliveries from local pastry shops.
No problem he thought. "I simply took the time and expense every
morning to gather what I needed by driving my own car."
And every morning, as he pulled into the loading zone in front of his
own business to take the pastries inside, he'd find a meter maid awaiting
him. The moment he left his vehicle, the parking cop would write him
a ticket for illegally parking a "car" in the loading zone.
He tried to explain. He tried to reason. What he got in return was the
cruelest of bureaucratic responses. "That's just the way it is."
"It's calmed down a bit since then." Julian said. "But
what I don't to this day understand is why the city so aggressively
tickets people to begin with. It's not like we're Chicago or New York,
where when someone parks their car for a second, they come back, find
a ticket, shrug their shoulders say, 'that's the cost of living in the
city' and move on. You know what I hear almost everyday from a customer
when they stop to get a quick cup of coffee, only to find a $20 ticket
added to their tab. They say, 'I'm never coming back!' And a lot of
times, they end up meaning it."
"What it comes down to are priorities," he says. "Are
we going to rob from the future Peter to pay the current Paul? Providing
a hospitable relationship for small businesses and potential customers
seems like common sense. But when you so aggressively ticket people
when there is barely a reason to be here to begin with, what motivation
is there for someone to return?"
Julian did more than complain to the meter maids about this. He placed
several calls to the head of the Parking and Transportation Department.
None of his calls were returned. "And I even know the guy!"
SMALL PLATES: UP AND RUNNING
Stern will tell you that he endured many personal hardships while putting
together the deals that were necessary to open his theater district
restaurant Small Plates, just a few city blocks north of Camillion Café
on Broadway. Fortunately, he didn't have to endure any of the frustrations
from the city administration that Julian Rainwater did. To him, the
key was enter the process without any expectations - good or bad. He
tried to always take initiative, listen to the advice of others and
stay firmly planted "in the middle."
He was able to join the relatively new Greater Downtown Partnership.
Created by Nico Schultz and Kate Beebe, this organization provided Todd
with guidance and help as issues arose.
Also, Mayor Kilpatrick's Administration has literally gone out of its
way to welcome Small Plates into the downtown community. They actually
called him! An incredible reversal from the administration's treatment
of Julian Rainwater. To this day, the mayor can be seen lending his
support to the eatery by dining there sometimes weekly.
Parking is still an issue. Customers of Small Plates can often be seen
getting up from their unfinished meal in order to plug more quarters
into the one hour meters that dot the sidewalks in front of Stern's
establishment. At the moment, Small Plates is trying to acquire Valet
Service to circumvent this issue.
CAFÉ DE TROIT: A PROMISING FUTURE
Lee Shows Padgett and her husband have enjoyed a smooth ride from the
city government while preparing to open their Library Street coffeehouse,
Cafe De troit (Day twah). Padgett initially joined the Chamber of Commerce,
which recommended a contractor to her who took care of all the permitting
and licensing issues. Her experience, she notes, with everyone associated
with the city government -- from departments issuing permits to health
inspectors -- has been exceedingly gracious and positive.
Padgett is working to build a coalition of small business owners in
her immediate area, in the hopes that their united voices will be heard
on common issues. A positive experience apparently begets the desire
for more involvement.
It would appear that the new administration has taken a number of positive
steps to make opening small businesses in Detroit easier. Is a free
lunch next? If the recent developments are any indication, progressive
ideas, such as a ticket-free lunchtime, may further foster our downtown's
growth - to say nothing of filling the city's long parched coffers.
What will this mean to Julian Rainwater and the Camillian Café?
Hopefully, for everyone who enjoys relaxing over a nice cup of coffee
while listening to soothing jazz, it won't be "too little, too
late." - reported by Scott Dillon