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Open City celebrates 8 years of building Detroit's small business community

Open City

Open City at Cliff Bell's

Claire Nelson, co-founder of Open City

April Boyle (left)

Liz Blondy, co-founder of Open City

Open City

On regularly scheduled Monday evenings in the fall and winter, small business owners, aspiring entrepreneurs, and others who are simply interested in what's happening in Detroit gather at Cliff Bell's for Open City. Over the last eight years, these events have helped strengthen an informal community of entrepreneurs with a shared interest in helping each other succeed.
 
Open City came together organically—and somewhat out of necessity. Co-founders Liz Blondy and Claire Nelson were friends and supporters of each other's entrepreneurial efforts. Blondy owns Canine to Five, a dog daycare center, and Nelson owned the Bureau of Urban Living, a housewares retail store (currently under different ownership and called Nest). The two met often over drinks to discuss issues they faced as small business people.
 
Liz Blondy, co-founder of Open City"Running a business can be very scary," says Blondy. "It's nice to have someone in your corner. We met at bars because conversation flows with alcohol."
 
"I didn't know what the heck I was doing. I had a lot to learn," remembers Nelson. "And whatever I was learning I wanted to share with other interested people."
 
Eventually they started inviting other people, which lead to guest speakers, the first being Jackie Victor, co-founder of Avalon Bakery.
 
"I had never owned a business, never managed an employee, never done marketing," says Blondy. "I had a lot a lot of questions and all these other entrepreneurs helped me."
 
At the time of the first official meeting of Open City, there weren't nearly as many support systems for small businesses as there are today. "2007 was a very different time," says Nelson. "All the bigger agencies -- the Detroit Regional Chamber, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, Tech Town -- they were only starting to tiptoe into small business investment. There was no coordinated initiative."

Claire Nelson, co-founder of Open City
 
While the struggles confronting local business owners have evolved, the basic format of that first official Open City event remains largely unchanged. Guests arrive at Cliff Bell's for conversation and networking at 6:00 p.m. After 30 minutes, a speaker or moderated panel talks for an hour on a topic, during which guests can submit questions on notecards. Each season features a new set of topics based on the changing needs of the community. (Last season, Open City hosted discussions on topics like "Rock the Red Tape: Tips for Navigating City Hall" and "Pop-up Detroit: Starting Slow and Small." For a list of this year's topics, click here.)
 
Some esteemed Detroiters and important local players have participated on panels or as moderators, including Craig Fahle, former WDET radio host and current director of public affairs at the Detroit Land Bank Authority, and Brian Ellison, director of business and development services for the city of Detroit.
 
Nelson and Blondy also wanted to spotlight businesses that had endured during Detroit's leanest years. "A lot of time, the bright shiny new thing gets the attention," says Blondy. "We were very conscious of that and did everything we could to reach out to longtime business owners."
 
Build Institute, an idea activator and small business incubator, took over organizing Open City in 2012 under the guidance of its executive director, April Boyle. She's instituted a few tweaks, such as filming the events, collecting polls and data, doing more marketing, and inviting potential resource providers, such as Kiva Detroit, but the ultimate aim of Open City has remained the same. "This event came out of a need to support brick and mortar businesses, and we've tried to stay true to that spirit," says Boyle. "It's about shedding light on and providing info for these businesses to demystify the process."

April Boyle (left)
 
Boyle estimates that anywhere from 75-150 people show up for an event. To have that kind of consistency over eight years means attendees must get something valuable from returning. Though the event "officially" ends at 8:00 p.m., guests can stay and connect after the speaker portion -- and often do -- until the bar closes. Networking is sometimes just as important as what's discussed by the speakers. "I believe that the more people we can get in rooms together the more ideas and connections will happen," says Boyle.
 
There certainly are anecdotes that verify this. In 2007, Dave Mancini had nearly given up trying to find a viable location in Detroit for his business, Supino's Pizzeria. But when he attended an early Open City event, he met Victor, who told him about a vacant storefront in Eastern Market. His pizzeria moved in soon thereafter and has become one of the most celebrated food businesses in Detroit. Now, he's opening up an adjacent restaurant, La Rondinella.
 
It's an encouraging story to any Detroit entrepreneur. "I don't think there was a single existing or aspiring business owner who walked away from those events not in a good mood," says Blondy. "With all that support and enthusiasm, how could you not want to go open up the very best business you could?"
 
On Oct. 19, both Victor and Mancini, along with Nefertiti Harris of Tarot & Tea, will be panelists for the first event of this year's Open City season, "10 Years of Change with Model D," a conversation that runs in conjunction with Model D's year-long celebration of 10 years of publishing in Detroit. Their conversation will be moderated by Yodit Mesfin Johnson, founder of Lips and Hips.
 
Open City's 9th season opens on Monday, Oct. 19, from 6-8 p.m. at Cliff Bell's in downtown Detroit. Details at http://buildinstitute.org/program/open-city/.
 
Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.

Read more articles by Aaron Mondry.

Aaron Mondry is the managing editor of Model D and a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.
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