• “Hip” brands and locations can accelerate urban revitalization.
  • Institutions, including universities and hospitals, can contribute significantly to their surrounding neighborhoods.
  • A critical mass of density, innovation, people, and activities is necessary for urban revitalization schemes to be effective.

Who would have thought that the revitalization of Detroit would include high-end watch manufacturing and the revival of a century-old shoe polish brand?

The successful launch of the new Shinola watch assembly plant and retail store in midtown Detroit was featured in the ULI Fall Meeting session on revitalizing cities.

The original Shinola shoe polish was launched more than a century ago. The long-defunct brand recently was purchased for an offshoot of successful Texas-based watch, accessory, and apparel designer and manufacturer Fossil, Inc. The founder’s dream was to re-establish assembly and manufacture of watches on U.S. soil, said Shinola’s Steve Bock, who previously worked for Fossil.

Two years ago, the company initiated operations in midtown Detroit, assembling watches using imported Swiss components. More recently, they opened a storefront nearby, where sales of the $600 timepieces have greatly exceeded expectations. Shinola has expanded into crafting a range of other products in Detroit, including bicycles, leather goods, Shinola Cola, and even a new version of the classic shoe polish.

Bock believes that part of Shinola’s appeal is the “hip” factor of locating in a rapidly regenerating neighborhood of Detroit. “If East Berlin can become the coolest place in Germany, than Detroit can be hip too,” he said.

Session moderator Neisen O. Kasdin, a managing shareholder of Akerman Senterfitt who served as mayor of Miami Beach from 1997 to 2001, agreed. “The cool and hip factor is important in attracting business, along with committed institutions and critical mass,” he said. “It can’t happen everywhere, but it can happen in more places than you might think.”

Shinola is just one facet of midtown Detroit’s revival. As explained by Omar Blaik, President and CEO of U3 Ventures, the TechTown project is unlocking the potential of the 40 percent of midtown Detroit controlled by universities and hospitals.

“Universities tend to think from inside out, touching cities mostly with parking and storage facilities, leaving the space around them dead,” he said. “We have created a thriving core that is now attracting start-ups.”

The TechTown District plan is designed to accelerate innovation and promote entrepreneurship in a vibrant, mixed-use setting, repurposing historic building stock and leveraging existing institutional anchors including Wayne State University, College for Creative Studies (which houses Shinola), and the Henry Ford Health System. TechTown already supports hundreds of companies and jobs, along with successful outreach, networking, training, mentoring, and volunteering activities.

One of the drivers of revitalization in Detroit, Miami, and other cities is the Knight Foundation. Matt Haggman, the Foundation’s Miami Program Director, said that while Miami is known for its arts scene, it has the most entrepreneurs per capita of any U.S. city. “We invest in infrastructure, funding places where entrepreneurs can meet, communications platforms, targeted education efforts, and more,” he said.