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Unfiltered: Why Detroit?

(Appearing on Time Magazine's website, October 13, 2009)
To view or download a PDF of this article, click here.

When talking to Metro Detroiters for the blog, I always ask them the same question: Why Detroit?

Recently, I was interviewing Ron Harwood, president of Illuminating Concepts in Farmington Hills (a lovely suburb outside of Detroit.) His amazing company is best described as an architectural and themed lighting design firm. But they do far more than just create great lighting. They do something called "Immersion Experiences," environments that saturate visitors with elements like light, sound, water and more. So if you've ever been to Branson Landing, the Hersey's store in Chicago, the Ferrari dealership and restaurant in Las Vegas or the Museum of Chinese Film in Beijing, then you have seen their outstanding work. Locally, they did the Fox Theater, Greenfield Village and most of the downtown streetscape as well as Comerica Park, our baseball stadium.

Enough from me. I'm going to let Ron Harwood tell you "Why Detroit?" in his own words.

Why Detroit?

The question I receive most often from both outsiders and those within the state of Michigan is some variation of, "Why would a company who works globally and which has no physical ties (such as a manufacturing plant) to the city of Detroit or Michigan wish to remain there?"

The answer, of course, is much more complex than the question. Often, these outsiders do not know the full story that is Detroit's heritage, present and future; and we as insiders do not do as good of a job telling it as we perhaps could.

The truth is, Detroit is much more than the gloomy photographs we see of abandoned houses and shuddered plants. Our greatest stories go untold, fueling the misperception that our city is a dying breed of an old-world manufacturing ethos, hopelessly unrecoverable. Reality is much more nuanced, and much more interesting.

My company, Illuminating Concepts, which is a global multimedia firm fortunate enough to have performed work for some of the world's most recognized brands, could be located anywhere. Some have suggested that New York or L.A. are more suitable homes for a company specializing in delivering theatrical experiences, as we do. From what we've seen elsewhere and here, however, there is no place like home. And you've seen what Hollywood can accomplish here, with local talent and resources, given the opportunity.

Contrary to what most believe, our city and region boast a phenomenal talent pool. Whether the talent be creative, illustrative, in production, editing, architecture, or other fields, I have never seen more passionate, more creative and more engaging talent in all of my travels domestically and overseas. Even as the automotive industry reshapes itself, displaced talent is finding new callings, and bringing a fresh perspective to seemingly disconnected fields (such as architectural lighting) and adding insights and expertise that you simply can't find in other parts of the country. Similarly, our universities are world-class, from the University of Michigan and Michigan State University to Wayne State University, Lawrence Technological University and the College for Creative Studies.

True, we could move anywhere. But we doubled-down two years ago to expand our offices and commit our company and its nearly 50 employees to southeastern Michigan. The reasons range from emotional and familial to strategic and, yes, economic. Our people love living here. The people are real, the state is beautiful and Detroit has famously unrivaled passion and grit. Staying here has allowed me to build a family business in the Detroit region - not in the sense that my family works for me, but that the people who work with me are truly my family.

The people who have stayed here their whole lives know exactly what I mean by that. They, too, recognize that Detroit has so much to offer that many don't see at first blush - recreationally, culturally, aesthetically and in a vast diversity of interests and pursuits. And they understand that, if compensated fairly and generously (as we believe firmly we do), the cost of living, real estate and diversions are far more attractive than one could expect on either coast or in many other parts of the country.

The talent migration away from Michigan has been well reported, and much maligned. But what is less reported, and what I see everyday, are the people who come back. Or the many who move here as a first choice.

The reason? The city is itself a misunderstood entity, and within it live an incredible number of remarkable stories and case studies in ingenuity. We're not all automotive, though we are seeing a cross-pollination of automotive talent leveraging their expertise to apply it in new, exciting industries. We like to believe that Illuminating Concepts is one of those stories, but if you dig even remotely beyond the surface, you will unearth a great many innovative, hungry and truly inspiring tales of other companies in other businesses that you would never dream would be housed in Detroit.

Where do we go from here?

I am not one who believes that Detroit's best days are behind us. Things look bleak now, from behind a camera lens and from miles away. But on the ground, you see and feel something exciting happening.

For the first time in my many years here, I see reason for hope - hope that things are about to change. I see a sense of collaboration and cooperation unprecedented in my years here. We are almost in a post-disaster mindset, much like you'd see in parts of the country that have experienced true crisis or collapse in recent years. Companies that would just five years ago vigorously compete are now collaborating and joining forces. Individuals that once regarded one another as enemies are now reaching out to work together for a greater common good. You see a sense of, "We're all in this together, so let's work together to dig ourselves out and begin the reconstruction." It's heartening to see, and even more exciting to be a part of.

Two examples. As GM wades through its much-publicized challenges and restructuring, and discretionary spending is scrutinized, it was forced to discontinue a high-profile sponsorship of a water feature at the Comerica Park baseball home to the Detroit Tigers. In response, the owner of the team, Mike Illitch, offered GM (in addition to Ford and Chrysler) the opportunity to keep its name on the electrifying fountain that eyeballs and cameras would capture as home runs left the park. Family came before business; and Detroit is a family. For my part, I have offered an open door to the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, whenever they are looking for ideas and inspiration on ways to help facilitate Detroit's rebirth and growth. I could certainly charge for my time, as I would others. But in this day and age, and for our common purpose, I wouldn't dream of it. All for one.

So, yes...the highly publicized migration from our state and city is rooted in reality. But the bigger reality is this: The weak have left, and it is the strong who have remained. I, for one, believe the smart money is on those who have stayed to fight another day.

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