CHANGING TIDES?
Small Businesses See New Attitude in City Government


 

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 in Detroit.

CAMILLION CAFÉ: A DIFFICULT START

Just 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 - desperately.

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 too soon.

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 exist here.

"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.

They weren't.

"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

sTodd 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

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