Small manufacturers bet on Detroit brand despite bankruptcy

Fri Aug 2, 2013 2:33am EDT
 
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By Nick Carey

DETROIT (Reuters) - For nearly six decades Detroit's story has been one of relentless erosion of its once mighty manufacturing base, but even as the Motor City faces a long bankruptcy a clutch of small producers has moved in to rekindle the "Made in Detroit" brand.

Making products ranging from bicycles to luxury watches and "sleeping bag" coats designed for the homeless, these small firms have tapped into a surprising amount of demand for goods made in a city more commonly associated today with failure and decline.

"Our customers come from all walks of life and are looking for a little bit of soul and something that is authentically Detroit," said Eric Yelsma, founder of Detroit Denim Co., which produces hand-made jeans. "We can't make them fast enough."

Unlike deep-pocketed Dan Gilbert, co-founder of online mortgage provider Quicken Loans who has helped spur a downtown boom here by moving in 9,000 employees and spending $1 billion in the process, Detroit's new entrepreneurs are winging it.

"None of us have ever done this before," said Zak Pashak, who has invested $2 million in Detroit Bikes, which will start production of its "urban bike" model in August and aims to build 40,000 bicycles a year.

"We just jumped in with both feet," said Pashak, who started out as a bar owner in his native Calgary and wound up in Detroit, a city he had admired since childhood for its Motown music. "America needs jobs, which is a good reason to start making stuff here again."

Detroit's manufacturing startups have yet to have much impact on a city unemployment rate that stood at 11.7 percent in June. As a whole, they have created only a few hundred jobs, just a fraction of the 7,700 manufacturing jobs created in the sector from March 2012 to March 2013 in the Detroit metropolitan area, according government data.

Small as they are, Detroit's manufacturing startups offer faint signs of economic diversification after decades of reliance on the automakers or grand schemes to revitalize Detroit such as casinos. They are also making relatively expensive niche goods in a city where consumer spending power has been battered for years.   Continued...

 
A Shinola three-speed bicycle, assembled in Detroit, is displayed at the recently opened luxury Shinola watch and bike store in midtown Detroit, Michigan July 22, 2013. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook