Friends vying for $50K in Hatch Detroit competition, and how Ypsi could have done it first, if I’d had my shit together

    Two of my friends, Joe Posch and Lisa Waud are in the running for a $50,000 prize in a competition called Hatch Detroit. The ultimate objective of the project, according to organizers Ted Balowski and Nick Gorga, is to get entrepreneurs moving into downtown Detroit, and trying new things. And, toward that end, both of these friends of mine submitted ideas concerning what they’d do in downtown Detroit if given the $50,000 grand prize. The ultimate decision as to who wins will be in the hands of panel of business experts, but, at this stage, people like you and I can still play a role. We, through our online votes, will help pare today’s ten semi-finalists down to four finalists, who will then face the judges. (Online voting ends Friday, October 14 as 11:59 PM EST, and, from what I’m told, you can vote every day between now and then.) So, even though I don’t know the first thing about Hatch Detroit (I don’t think there’s any connection to the Hamtramck artists’ collective Hatch), I thought that I’d mention the competition here in hopes that the money is real, and that it might make it possible for either Lisa or Joe to do great, inspiring things in the City. (I have the utmost confidence in both of them, and don’t doubt for a minute that they’d be inspirational, revolutionary forces in whatever community they found themselves in.) Here, in case you don’t know them, are links to interviews I’ve done with both of them in the past: Joe & Lisa.

    Now, do you want to hear something weird? I was in the very early stages of starting something that I was referring to as The Great Ypsilanti Retail Challenge when I first heard of this competition in Detroit. It was something that I had been working on with Hasan Mihyar of Woodruff’s. Hasan had been a guest on Dreamland Tonight, and, during his interview, we’d talked a lot about what could be done to jumpstart the entrepreneurial retail community here in Ypsilanti. And, after the show, the conversation continued. What follow are my rough notes, written at the time of those initial conversations.

    Problem Statement: We don’t have a critical mass downtown. We’ve got a few good, solid businesses, but we don’t have significant pedestrian traffic. At the same time, we have an excess of retail space, some of which is move-in-ready.

    Pop-up for the Holidays: I’m thinking that it might be possible to contact local landlords with quality, move-in-ready space and negotiate 2-month leases (November – December) for their storefronts, with the intention of launching temporary retail locations. (I’m imagining that stores would open after Thanksgiving and close on New Year’s Eve.) I would then go about recruiting people who I feel could run businesses that would be particularly successful at holiday sales. I believe that, if I could get four spaces or more up and running, we could attract an incredible amount of local press, which would translate to some real momentum on Michigan Avenue. Who knows, one of the stores may even decide to stay in business. At the very least, we’d be able to showcase our downtown as viable, and perhaps create some interest in the properties that we’re using. From my perspective, the landlords of these otherwise vacant properties would have little to lose from such an arrangement. All stores would commit to having regular hours and coordinated launch and closing parties. Targeted “Shop Indie in Ypsi” materials would be designed, printed and distributed to create interest in the undertaking.

    The Ypsi Retail Challenge: (This is the idea that I developed with Hassan, the co-owner of Woodruff’s in Depot Town.) Essentially it would be a contest to get a new retail business of some kind in Ypsilanti. Again, it would require a partnership of some kind with a downtown landlord. The idea is that we would hold a public competition, urging would-be entrepreneurs to come forward with their retail ideas. We would promote the competition throughout the region, and not just in Ypsilanti. The finalists would have to pitch their ideas before a panel of judges. And, the winner would get both assistance in various forms (marketing, promotions, design, etc), and free rent for between 6 months and a year, depending on what kind of deal could be struck with the building owner. Our hope, of course, would be that the business owner, having gotten a great launch, would be able to stay in business afterward. And, we could document the whole thing, in stories and video, on the web, hopefully drawing attention to the innovative community of Ypsilanti, where such things are possible. As for funding, we were thinking that it could be community based, with perhaps other local businesses pledging 1 or 2% of sales one weekend (which we’d publicize heavily) toward covering the rent and startup costs. We could also seek the contributions of individuals, hold fund-raisers, etc.

    I know that either initiative would be significant work, and that it might be particularly difficult to come up with downtown business models for retail that would work, especially in scenario two, which we’re seeing as year-round, but, if we broadcast it widely, throughout the metro-Detroit area, we might find a person or two that has a compelling vision for a business that would serve as a downtown anchor going forward.

    So, that’s what I had written when I called Joe, asking whether or not, as someone who had operated retail operations in both Ann Arbor and Detroit, this might be the kind of thing that he’d find of interest. And, that’s when Joe told me that someone had not only already thought of it, but that they were in the process of getting together at $50K prize. So, the project went to the back burner. I still think it has a lot of promise though… And maybe it’s too late for this year, but I really like the idea of downtown full of quirky little pop-up stores for the holidays. I don’t think anyone’s hacked into my brain and ripped that idea yet off yet.

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