Detroit Revitalization Fellow: Marcus Clarke

"I am a total newbie here -- new to Detroit, new to the Midwest, new to everything here," says Marcus Clarke, business development manager with the Detroit Economic Development Corporation.  

Clarke comes from California, so he’s new to chilly winters, too. "I've experienced a real transition," he says. 

Although he grew up in Sonoma County, he’s not new to inner city communities. While doing graduate work in City Planning at California-Berkeley, his research was concentrated in poor Bay area communities: the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in San Francisco, the People’s Credit Union in West Oakland, and Richmond’s "Iron Triangle." 

"I went to planning school to help people participate in the decisions shaping their communities," he explains. "There are so many decisions made that don’t work well for people."

After earning an M.A., his first job was with the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center in San Francisco, which took him into the low-income Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood. "My role was to walk the streets of the neighborhood and meet the needs of the businesses in the context of the community," he says. He assisted small business owners across San Francisco with financial assistance, counseling, education, help with city permits and links to city services. 

Clarke's next step on the career ladder was as economic Development Specialist in San Mateo, a socially and economically diverse city south of San Francisco, where he led efforts to attract, retain and expand businesses. 

"San Mateo is a great city, with a lot of attributes to highlight and therefore attract and retain business," he says. "After five years, I felt that it was time to begin another challenge, and to assist a new community."

That’s why he ventured two-thirds of the way across the continent to become a Detroit Revitalization Fellow at a 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, he 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.

Clarke’s experience in economic development attracted the interest of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DECG), a non-profit organization that works closely with the City of Detroit and other partners to support existing business and bring new companies and investments to the city. 

DECG’s vice president for development Olga Stella, says, "We were attracted to his passion for making a difference. The work he did in San Mateo was like a gap in our program. He has the skills and expertise we need, and the sensitivity to work with small businesses. He’s starting a new program for us -- helping local companies improve their procurement, tapping into supply chains. This will be a new line of service for our organization."

Clarke describes the work as "a matchmaking process of finding out what large business's needs are and letting them know what’s available from other Detroit-based suppliers." For instance, he notes that making hot dog buns for Henry Ford Health System meant $260,000 in new business for Milano Bakery in Eastern Market, and for the city’s economy. As a result, Milano was able to expand its product mix and capture new opportunities. 

The businesses involved in this program make up the city's local business-to-business cluster, which in addition to food service, includes waste removal, facilities maintenance, construction, and local logistics to name a few. This cluster offers good job opportunities for lower-skilled workers, as well as local wealth creation through small business growth and development. 

Clarke’s dedication to lifting up promising local businesses mirrors one of his other passions: helping young people realize their full potential. In 2009, he authored a workbook about the spirituality of music, entitled, What Is God’s Melody for Me? A Better Look at Today’s Hip-Hop, R&B and Pop Music. "Messages pushed through music affect people’s behavior and perception of themselves. I’ve witnessed this my whole life, and see the problems it can cause, particularly around our African-American youth," he says.  

Although he’d never visited Detroit before applying for the fellowship and moving here, he was always intrigued by the techno and house music pioneered here in the mid-1980s. "I’ve been really excited to get to know some of the DJs I’ve heard about." 

Clarke hasn’t stayed a newbie for long in Detroit. His upfront friendliness has helped him forge bonds within Detroit's business community. Settling into a waterfront apartment in the East Jefferson neighborhood, he’s joined the Y to play racquetball and is trying to learn all he can about the city. "I'm trying to get to know different parts of Detroit -- to explore the many neighborhoods and people throughout the city."

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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