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Where the auction is: Q&A with surreal estate innovator Jerry Paffendorf






Jerry Paffendorf is the co-founder of LOVELAND Technologies and one of the main people behind some of the Detroit's more outlandish, and sometimes controversial, projects. He and a small group of friends came up with inchvesting, a concept where anyone could buy an inch of land in Detroit for $1 and be part of a microhood. 

He is also one of the driving forces behind the Imagination Station, a community project turning two blighted houses into art. The $50,000 campaign to build a Robocop statue in the shadow of the Michigan Central Station. That's Paffendorf, too. His newest projects is called WhyDontWeOwnThis.com, a tool that makes the morass of information from this month's Wayne County Tax Foreclosure Auction (13,000 properties mostly in Detroit) easily digestible thanks to an online mapping system. Each property entry provides vital information, such as property ID number, opening bid, condition of the property and a Google Street View of the building. 

The beauty of all of this creativity is all of these projects continue to move forward. Paffendorf and his team sum up in one word how they make sure these cool ideas don't die a slow death by neglect. "Persistence, dude," Paffendorf says. "The thing I have noticed most about myself compared to other friends who have wild ideas is if I commit to a project, I follow through. I just really bite down like a snapping turtle, even if it takes years."

Paffendorf has put those years of work in since moving to the city in 2008. Before that the rural New Jersey native lived in Portland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. In fact the three years he has been here is the longest he has spent in one place during his adult life.  

"I don't have any plans to not be here," Paffendorf says. "I am doubling down on the city. Our work is just getting started. Detroit is this futuristic city that is constantly changing. It's a city that needs the change. Working on changing is enjoyable for figuring out how it works and satisfying because you're doing something positive that affects peoples' lives."

Paffendorf, 30, recently peddled his bicycle from his Corktown home to the bar at Slows to talk with Model D's Jon Zemke about LOVELAND Technologies, Robocop, art and how a tool like WhyDontWeOwnThis.com helps empower Detroiters.

WhyDontWeOwnThis.com provides valuable information for free. How do you plan to turn this into a profitable venture? 

The financial part doesn't come first for us. We take on things that fall into that grey area where they are important but it's difficult to see how they will pay the bills or scale it up. It's funny because when we started this we were doing it off inchvesting, which is living off the land in the weirdest way possible.

Can you give me an example of how you'll monetize WhyDontWeOwnThis.com then?

In any city, people want to improve their neighborhoods and invest in things. We are building a virtual layer on the world that is broken down by spaces. It includes social network, geography and ways for people to fund and get involved in projects. I don’t know what the business is but it seems like one of those highly scalable, impactful things.

Could WhyDontWeOwnThis.com fall into the same problem as newspapers that give away stories on the Internet for free instead of charging a small fee?

This is information everyone should have access to. If we try to charge people for it, we would just be repeating the same mistakes. That's not what we're about. There are people who are moving out of the city or missing out on opportunities because of the environmental conditions here. 

One of the goals of WhyDontWeOwnThis.com is to empower local people to purchase nearby problem properties and turn them into assets. Do you ever worry this technology could turn into an example of best-of-intentions that enables speculators and absentee landlords?

We already live in that world right now. Speculators already know how to do things like this. One of the services we're offering through WhyDontWeOwnThis.com is called The Land Blank. My friend Andy registered at the $5,000 level so we can buy multiple properties so if you haven't registered you can use us as a proxy. We don't want facilitate absenteeism. We want to push development forward.

The Robocop statue is a lightning rod piece of art today. Do you think Detroiters will still talk about it, or even care, a generation from now? 

It's important to remember the process in which the money was raised. The medium is the message with this one. Robocop was the first crowd-funding event to happen in the city. I think we'll see a lot more of them. So maybe it will stay as the avatar for that.

In a way Robocop causes a stir the same way the Joe Louis fist does. Are the two comparable?

I guess so but at the same time it's not where Robocop came from. The responses were so interesting. It became a stand-in for other conversations about the city. What should people be caring about? How should we spend our money? Who gets to decide what things get built in the city? 

The Imagination Station is turning two blighted houses in the shadow of the Michigan Central Station into community assets, mainly through artistic expression. A lot of the art in the city centers around transforming blight into something beautiful. What's next for Detroit's art scene after blight-beautiful art?

I was at an art opening last night for the Hygienic Dress League. I like them, and I would like to see them push it further, because they're playing around with a fictitious corporation, but making it real. I'd love to see them incorporate financial mechanisms into their art work. I don't like art in a box. I want to see it leak out and seep into real life. 

The Dan Gilbert empire has created quite a bit of buzz lately about creating a tech cluster in the greater downtown area based on young, innovative people. Do you believe the hype?

I believe the hype that this city is a great place for tech entrepreneurs. The city needs that to happen for it to be a happy place. One of the cool things about Detroit is its different. They (Gilbert & Co.) are doing cool things with the skyscrapers downtown, and that's awesome, but it also feels good to do what artists are doing, taking over a warehouse and saying, 'Lets create a cool space.' I'd rather have LOVELAND's office in Corktown than downtown, but that's just me.

You moved from Portland, a city known for attracting smart young people, to Detroit, a city that envies Portland reputation at times. What is Portland doing, or had done, to attract the young and educated that Detroit should do? 

I never thought about how city functions. Portland, New York, San Francisco just function and you don't really think about it. Portland is marketed as a livable, slower, more natural, greener city. It's not about working all the time. There are really creative people there and it's quieter. That's why it was attractive to us. It was a real-deal city that felt comfortable.

What is Detroit doing that Portland should do?

I hate to fall into the Detroit exceptionalism club. Detroit is such a different kind of animal. Any city that has 70,000 empty structures and a third of its land vacant is on a different tip. I don’t know.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to have a successful Kickstarter campaign?

It all starts with the idea. You have to have something people want and that gets them excited. Make a good video but not too long or with too many words. Don't promise too many rewards at too low of a cost. When we were doing inchvesting, we would be like 'Yes! A new inchvestor!' And then we would be like, 'Crap, a new inchvestor' because we would have to put everything together and send it to them. When your project goes live the first people that are going to care are your family and friends, so let them know in advance. Alert them early because money attracts money. It's not magic. You're going to have to work for it because it's more than likely not going to go viral. Except Robocop. That was magic.

Jon Zemke is the Start-up News Editor for Model D. He also the Managing Editor for SEMichiganStartup.com. He conducted and condensed this interview. His last story was Downtown tech talk: Q&A with 'Webward' development ace, Dan Mullen. 

All photographs Marvin Shaouni Photography

Contact Marvin here.

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