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Friends & Neighbors: Mark Denson

Growing Michigan by growing Detroit’s economy

November 14, 2005 |

Bruce Giffin

Mark Denson

Mark Denson is one of southeast Michigan’s bright, young economic development specialists. Before directing marketing for the Detroit Regional Chamber’s economic partnership program, Mark worked on economic issues for Wayne County, the City of Detroit, and Senator Don Riegle. Now he promotes southeast Michigan and Detroit as centers of business development and capital investment. Mark, who joined the Institute’s board in 2004, lives in Detroit with his wife and their two sons. Carolyn Kelly interviewed him.

INSTITUTE: How do you persuade people to invest in Detroit?
MARK DENSON: We show them that it has a good market and that Michigan is a great transportation hub, so it makes sense to be here. And the people who live here are a real plus.

INSTITUTE: What are the biggest hurdles to getting people to invest in Detroit?
MD: First, the apprehension we often
feel locally isn’t there for international companies. Perceptions of crime are an issue, but for industry, warehouses, and distribution, those things aren’t concerns. It can be hard to get retailers to modify their concept when you have an older stock of buildings, but once you can show them how it can work, you attract them. What’s really significant is that retailand restaurant growth is led by suburban companies who are returning to the city.

INSTITUTE: What encourages you, and discourages you, about Detroit today?
MD: What encourages me is the way our economy’s growing and diversifying. Warehousing, distribution, biological research, and health care are big. The breadth of investment is stunning, and the more investment we get, the easier it is to attract more. But the lack of a viable regional public transportation system hurts us when employers look at how their employees are going to get to work.

INSTITUTE: What can the Institute do for Detroit?
MD: The Institute can let Detroiters know that the Oak Parks of the world are having similar problems with regard to infrastructure, aging housing stock, and amenities. We can also make the connection between reinvestment in the city and preserving open, green spaces in the rest of the state. Often Detroiters don’t realize that there are organizations working to benefit the city that aren’t Detroit-based.

INSTITUTE: What message does the rest of the state need to hear about Detroit?
MD: In the last 10 years, there’s been $24 billion invested in this town. We have to stop thinking about when Detroit will turn the corner; it has turned the corner. The population drop has bottomed out and investment in lofts and housing is attracting residents and homeowners.

INSTITUTE: How does Detroit’s future connect to Michigan’s future?
MD: It’s a symbiotic relationship. Detroit is Michigan’s face to the world. If you travel anywhere throughout the world, they don’t know Traverse City, or Macomb County; they know Detroit. If Detroit’s strong, it boosts tourism and Michigan-based products. Everyone in Michigan has a vested interest in Detroit.

INSTITUTE: Where does Smart Growth fit in?
MD: Smart Growth encourages people to invest in communities that need it the most and where there’s infrastructure and buildings already available. It also provides another reason to look at Detroit before plopping a business down in a greenfield. That preserves what makes Michigan beautiful.

INSTITUTE: What can the Institute do to make Smart Growth a reality in Michigan?
MD: Engaging the Legislature is key, as is creating awareness of how Smart Growth benefits people by conserving natural and human resources. It’s also important to explain the bottom line benefits of Smart Growth to the business community.

INSTITUTE: Why did you decide to get involved with the Institute?
MD: As an economic development professional, I understand the need for creative reuse of first-ring suburbs and urban cores and how that makes us more competitive as a region and a state. Vibrant cities are important. Serving on the Institute Board is my way of contributing to my hometown of Detroit. I really believe in what the Institute is doing.

INSTITUTE: What do you tell people about the Institute?
MD: The Institute shows people the links between Detroit’s revitalization and the preservation of green and open spaces around the state, and the links between urban, suburban, and rural areas—there aren’t many organizations that do that. And I say, “Here’s an organization that’s really pushing policies that benefit the city.”

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