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Detroit's entrepreneurs aren't all young and white

Gerald Watson plans on hosting a competition he’s calling Detroit’s Next Executive Chef at Mo’ Betta Blues, his new restaurant and club. The competition, modeled after similar shows on cable television, is part of the soft opening of the restaurant, located in Detroit near Grand Circus Park and in the area near Comerica Park, Ford Field and the proposed new hockey arena and entertainment district.

Mo’ Betta Blues, scheduled to open sometime this month, is one of numerous new enterprises popping up in Detroit as a wave of entrepreneurialism washes across the city. After a century of domination by giant industrial operations that employed hundreds of thousands of workers, the new look of commerce in the city is small, mobile and innovative.

There is an emerging narrative of this economic rebirth that has focused on young white entrepreneurs flooding into the city to take advantage of inexpensive properties and new technology to launch their enterprises. But Watson, 47, represents another important part of the story. He is one of the many African-American businessmen fighting to get established and help build a prosperous new Detroit.

“People think it’s just young white kids starting businesses,” says Watson. “The opportunity is there for anybody. You have to have passion for it and put the work in. It’s a great time in the city. Detroit is a lump of clay waiting to be molded. Opportunities for African-Americans are here. We just have to go out and look for them. The timing is right.”

Watson owned Snook’s 1001 in Trapper’s Alley and Snook’s Off the River in the Rivertown area in the late 1990s. Since then he’s worked in radio sales and marketing, but he’s bringing all that experience together to launch Mo’ Betta Blues, an upscale casual jazz and blues club featuring “classic American cuisine with a modern twist.” The Next Chef event is sponsored by US Foods, Pepsi, Budweiser and 93.9 FM The River.

Watson is a member of the Independent Business Association, a group made up primarily of established local black business owners. He credits group members with helping him solve problems as he established his restaurant.

It’s unclear what the rate of new business startups is in Detroit or how many of them are by African Americans. On its web site, the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce shows 32,490 African American-owned businesses in Detroit based on a 2007 census, and 53,380 in the metropolitan area.

Today Chandra Moore’s coG Studio would have to be added to that list along with many others. Moore first came to Detroit from her native California in 2004 to work on the RiverWalk. She was the lead designer of the pavilions. After returning to California to help a sick family member Moore thought about all the potential she’d witnessed in Detroit and returned in 2007 to start her business.

She worked with the Detroit Creative Corridor Center to get established and it has grown from there. coG is on the team renovating the Lafayette Tower apartment building. Moore worked with Speilhaus Toys downtown, creating a reading corner and demonstration area in the tiny (350 square feet) popup retail space. The studio had done work at Glazer Elementary School on the west side and is currently working with Avalon International Breads with its new space on Canfield Street to make it kid-friendly.

“I wanted to look into focusing pretty much on kids because it’s not done often,” says Moore, the 35-year-old mother of a 3-year-old. “I was tired of seeing kids’ stuff being neglected. I’m speaking more of teenagers. They need more places to play, venues where they can go and hang out after school instead of hanging out at home. That’s where teen pregnancy is happening. They need a place to take all that energy and parents can focus on working.”

Even when there are youth centers they can be hard to get to. Moore wants to see more youth-friendly design incorporated into places in general so that it’s just a part of daily life. And Detroit is a platform for a nationwide endeavor. Moore works with a group that’s buying properties around the country and setting them up with things like wifi, dog grooming areas, yoga and tutoring spaces – things that attract young professionals.

Detroit hasn’t needed to be a city of entrepreneurs this past century. Now we do. And there are plenty of Detroiters answering the call.

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