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Chamber's Detroit Policy Conference Looks At City's Economic Resurgence

DETROIT -- While Detroit's city government teeters on the brink, Detroiters -- particularly young new Detroiters -- are busy building successful businesses and whole new neighborhoods of residences where empty, blighted buildings stood before.

Their stories provided inspiration for more than 600 of Detroit's government, business and community leaders Thursday at the Detroit Regional Chamber's 2013 Detroit Policy Conference, held at the Motor City Casino Hotel.

Technology Report editor Matt Roush moderated the session on the region's growing tech sector, "Outpacing Silicon Valley: How Detroit is Revolutionizing the IT Industry."

Panelists described how they work closely with Michigan colleges and universities to keep highly trained talent in the state, and how they kept pitching their business ideas until they achieved funding and success.

Panelists included tech veteran Jim Anderson, founder, president and CEO of Detroit-based Urban Science, which pretty much invented the science of geographic information systems, translating computer data onto maps to help retailers -- specifically automakers -- use demographic data to decide where to put their next store. Anderson's company, founded in 1977, now has more than 800 employees worldwide.

Henry Balanon, co-founder of Detroit Labs, talked about how his company has grown to 32 employees building mobile apps for some of the biggest names in industry, with funding from Detroit Venture Partners, the venture firm owned in part by Detroit entrepreneurs Dan Gilbert and Josh Linkner.

Jen Todd Gray, vice president of marketing and creative services at the interactive promotions firm Linkner founded, Pleasant Ridge-based ePrize, talked about how her company starts bringing in students to show them tech-based careers as young as elementary school, and continues through high school and college co-op students.

Joey Grover, software engineer and mobile technology lead at Ferndale-based Livio, talked about how his company is bringing Internet radio to the automobile. And Zafar Razzacki, account executive in the Ann Arbor office of Google Inc., talked about how his company is building online marketing campaigns for the biggest of the Fortune 500, straight out of southeast Michigan.

Panelists agreed that Detroiters often sell the region short as a place to live and enjoy a rewarding tech career.

Other highlights of the event included:

* Chamber president and CEO Sandy K. Baruah explained Charter One bank's Growing Communities program, which provides microgrants to vendors and farmers at Eastern Market who then use the funds to grow their businesses. The program's participants provided the lunches and snacks served at the event.

* Baruah also presented to the city process maps of how to accomplish various business tasks, developed by Walsh College. Part of the to-do list of the chamber's 2012 Mackinac Policy Conference, the maps offer simple graphic representations of city processes commonly tackled by businesses to make them easier for businesses to complete -- everything from getting a business license to getting approval for signs or outdoor restaurant space.

* Matt Cullen, president and CEO of Gilbert's holding company Rock Ventures, talked up "the other side of the story" of Detroit, investments and redevelopments made by Rock Ventures in downtown Detroit, where the company has purchased more than a dozen major buildings. Cullen spoke of rental housing and office space shortages downtown, certainly not the kind of press downtown usually gets. And he said design plans are beginning for the site of the former Hudson's department store.

* Urban policy expert Richard Florida, who recently wrote online that downtown Detroit's new urban community is bigger than other cities that get much better press, offered his customary praise to the creative class, which is the economic group he says is responsible for making urban areas vibrant. Florida last year created a five-part video series titled "Detroit Rising."

* Another morning keynote stressed the importance of preserving Detroit's great institutional assets, from the Cobo convention center to the Detroit Institute of Arts to riverfront parks to airports.

* Detroit Mayor Dave Bing offered cautionary optimism about the city, reiterating no less than five times that "It's time to change the conversation about Detroit." He urged Detroiters to be ambassadors for their hometown, not its harshest critics.

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