Detroit Revitalization Fellow: Michael Forsyth

Michael Forsyth never lived in Detroit until the summer of 2011 but nonetheless brandishes impressive Motor City credentials.  He worked on the assembly line at a GM plant in Lansing to pay his way through Michigan State. "My legacy is that I put three screws and a push pin into the last Oldsmobile to go off the line," he says. 

"I've always been attracted to Detroit," he says. "That’s why I took urban planning classes in college." He finally got a chance to really experience the city he dreamed about when, "my band played at Harpos -- a music bar off I-94 on the East Side. I was hooked. I would come back to the city and drive around in my truck taking pictures and thinking about the possibilities."

Forsyth focused on inner-city revitalization as he pursued an M.S. in urban planning at Michigan State University and did research projects in post-industrial German cities. After finishing school, he took a job in Seattle, with Community Attributes International, a planning and economic development consulting firm where he helped draft strategies to grow fashion, clean tech, bio-medical devices, financial services and video game industries in the Puget Sound region. "I realized that Seattle would be fine no matter what I did. I have a real role to play in Detroit. I was looking for a way to get here the whole time I was in Seattle."

Opportunity knocked when he heard about the Detroit Revitalization Fellows program run by Wayne State University, with funding by Kresge FoundationFord FoundationHudson-Webber Foundation and the Skillman Foundation. The program matches rising professionals with organizations working at the forefront of Detroit revitalization efforts. In September 2011, Forsyth and 28 other Fellows from around the country started work at 25 organizations ranging from community organizations to business networks to the Mayor’s office.

Forsyth joined the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation as the Business Development Manager focused on retail initiatives. His work is now focused on pushing beyond Detroit’s industrial greatness to play a leading role in the multi-faceted economy of the 21st century. 

Forsyth is helping DEGC revitalize the northern edge of Detroit with its biggest retail development in the city over the past 40 years -- the Shoppes at Gateway at Woodward Avenue and 8 Mile Road. Olga Stella, Forsyth’s supervisor at DEGC says "He's impatient and hard-working. Michael’s enabled us to give a single-minded focus on retail, which we previously were unable to do." 
"We are a nonprofit economic development agency known for business development, project management of real estate and construction projects, complex negotiations," Stella says. "We’re not a big firm that can recruit nationally. The Fellows program did that for us."

"In 20 years, Detroit’s image will be drastically changed," Forsyth predicts. "College students will flock here because it's a sexy, vibrant place and they can find job openings. We'll be known for our innovative entrepreneurs and business owners -- big and small. Many of the historic neighborhoods will be bustling with new home buyers, while residents tell their new neighbors about the great investment they made 20 years earlier."

Many outside Detroit may scoff at his optimism but Forsyth presents his case thoroughly. "Our building stock is an overlooked asset. If I were to show images of the neighborhoods around (the Avenue of Fashion) to a visitor without mentioning Detroit, you’d think they were million-dollar houses in some other major American city. They are simply some of the most beautiful homes you’ll find anywhere at prices that you’ll never see again." 

Forsyth and his wife, a special education teacher who grew up nearby in Plymouth, Michigan, live in Southwest Detroit and enjoy exploring Detroit treasures such as Baker’s Keyboard Lounge on Livernois Avenue -- one of the oldest jazz bars in America -- and Taqueria El Rey, a Mexican cantina in Southwest Detroit. "We moved to Southwest so I could be closer to El Rey. Southwest has the best, most authentic food in the region -- period," he says. 

"It's great introducing people to Detroit, especially my family. They've lived in Michigan their entire lives but have never really gotten to know Detroit. The misconceptions and fear quickly give way to excitement and discovery," Forsyth says. "I get great satisfaction when people discover the truly special place that is the real Detroit. It’s happening more and more every day."

Jay Walljasper, author of The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, is a Senior Associate with Citiscope and Senior Fellow with Project for Public Spaces.
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