Detroit's foundations spread money through broken city

Mon May 27, 2013 8:14am EDT
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By Nick Carey

DETROIT (Reuters) - When Kevin Ward fulfilled his dream by opening a rib joint in one of Detroit's poorest and most blighted areas, he could not afford extra meat. If the ribs ran out, he closed for the day.

"We were doing real well considering, but inventory was a problem," said Ward, 40, who perfected his ribs while at college in Alabama and opened Slabbee's five months ago in Brightmoor.

But with advice from SWOT City, a pilot program run by foundation-backed small-business incubator TechTown Detroit, Ward has received microfinancing to solve his inventory problem. Now he plans to buy a delivery van and hire a second employee.

Ward's rib joint is just one example of new ways in which Detroit's philanthropic foundations are trying to create jobs and boost schools in a city facing potential bankruptcy. In doing so, they are conducting a sort of civic triage, choosing areas, schools and businesses with a good chance of survival.

The foundations' efforts address the breakdown of civic life that Detroit's emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, pointed out earlier this month in his first report on Detroit's financial health.

Detroit's foundations hark back to an era when the city was an economic beacon and the auto industry's birthplace. The Kresge Foundation, for example, was started in 1924 with money from the founder of what eventually became retail giant Kmart.

Some other initiatives in Detroit are paying off. The city's downtown is experiencing a small boom thanks largely to mortgage lender Quicken Loans, whose co-founder and Detroit native Dan Gilbert has moved in 7,000 employees and invested $1 billion in an attempt to attract other businesses.

But most of Detroit's 80 percent black population of around 700,000 live outside downtown, many in blighted areas.   Continued...

Kevin Ward (R) and Charlie Monagan, co-owners of Slabbee's Ribs & Soul, stand in front of their recently opened take-out rib joint in one of Detroit's poorest, blighted neighborhoods in Detroit, Michigan, April 17, 2013. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook