How a southwest Detroit construction company is building community by building for the future

In May, AGI Construction held a cleanup event near Stanton Park in southwest Detroit where they are building a community space called Detroit Future Ops. It was rainy and cold, but nearly 40 people showed up, Tanya Saldivar-Ali recalls. 

"We were so excited and humbled by the support we had from the community," says the business development director for AGI, a southwest Detroit-based construction company. 

AGI, which Saldivar-Ali co-founded with her husband Luis Ali more than 10 years ago, provides commercial interior remodeling, retrofitting, and building services to community development projects. 

"We didn't just clean up our property," Saldivar-Ali says. Being there showed "we're here and we want to help contribute to the community." 

So the group cleaned other people's properties, the park, and other surrounding areas in addition to their own building.

Saldiver-Ali says AGI is being intentional about modeling how businesses should enter communities with a sense of social responsibility. The couple, who have been dating since their time at Western International High School, are from the community themselves and especially aware of the need to be respectful to longtime residents.

They’re planning another event on July 7 at Stanton Park where they'll highlight these residents and invite them to tell their stories and memories about the neighborhood and how it’s changing. They'll also present a conceptual design for the house, so people can provide input on it as well as how to activate the park. 

"I think that's a big piece — about letting people know your history," Ali says. "It's an interesting time where everything's going to change. You've got new people coming, people that have been here for a few years, and think, 'This is our community.' And there are people who have been here much longer."

AGI is putting this belief into practice for their current project with Detroit Future Ops, which will be a community resource center offering services and capacity building for a strong workforce and minority contractor pipeline. When AGI Construction was buying the house, they discovered it had been in the same family for three generations. Three brothers served in the Korean War, and when they came home they purchased the property for their parents.

Building that will become Detroit Future Ops, a community resource center in southwest Detroit
"I also found out at that time their father was a pillar in this community and he was actually my principal in elementary school," Saldiver-Ali says. 

At first it was a project geared toward veterans — Ali is a veteran himself and serves in the Air National Guard with the Red Horse unit out of Ohio. While they decided to have it be more inclusive for Detroit residents, they still want to prioritize veterans to work on the house.

Community equity is key in elevating Detroiters, Saldiver-Ali says. As they move into the community, they want to be able to use their resources as a platform for other people to stand on.

This project and their approach comes at a time of rent creep and increased interest in southwest Detroit. "Construction in Detroit has been in Midtown and downtown and it's just now trickling into the neighborhoods," Saldiver-Ali says. "But it's hard for people to get included into those opportunities as well."

She cites a gap in people in skilled trades, education, and lack of access to resources. "We believe that construction and sustainability are the first steps in community development."

Humble beginnings

The couple started with investment properties in 2005 and got their builders license in 2008. Over the years, AGI Construction has learned to adapt with the market and survive in the industry. When the Great Recession hit, they got into property service for all the foreclosures that were flooding the market.

Construction work has rebounded, and their revenue has consistently grown over the past few years, according to Sandiver-Ali. Three years ago, they made $180,000, and this year they're expecting $1.2 million.

AGI employs six people, with Ali and Saldiver-Ali in the office. They have a project manager, part-time accountant, and workers in the field, including a full-time field supervisor.

Jerone Martin and Dave Jimenez of AGI Construction in a trench dug to replace part of the foundation for Detroit Future Ops
As the commercial side of their business has grown, so has their focus on community building. A couple of projects steered them in this direction.

In 2016, they renovated Cristo Rey High School's cafeteria, which also serves the community. While working on that project, they were referred to the Campbell Green House Project, which will be half-greenhouse, half-residential development. The greenhouse portion will be designed as a kind of public space for young people to earn about green technology through workshops.

They also worked with First Latin American Baptist Church, which had to relocate because of eminent domain to make way for the Gordie Howe International Bridge. AGI served as an advocate and helped the church navigate the process.

"With each one of those projects, the work became a lot more meaningful and we realized that construction really was the first step to community development and sustainability," Saldiver-Ali says. "That Cristo Rey project was probably our largest project to date and Frank [Venegas of the Ideal Group], gave us that opportunity."

They also realized the potential of green construction, and are now a part of a green veterans sustainability group.

"I think the biggest thing we realized is sustainability was not just construction — it's a lifestyle," Ali says. "How do we build so that people are better or more comfortable in their spaces? And that's just more of our approach mentally physically and building about how to be more sustainable."

Building for the future

What drives them is building for the next generation.

Long term, they would like to help mentor other minorities to become developers in the city. They had several instrumental mentors, such as Venegas and Angie Reyes from the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, which leases AGI office space in Corktown, who helped them grow.

Saldiver-Ali says it'll be a sort of pilot on a small scale to see what impact they can have.

Ali and Saldivar-Ali with the crew of AGI Construction outside the future community resource center
When it comes to the change going on in the city, southwest Detroit needs leaders like Ali and Saldiver-Ali, who can be mentors, bridges to resources, and help their communities adapt and take advantage of growing interest in their neighborhood. 

"This community has always been prosperous in that way," Saldiver-Ali says. "This community has always been sustainable with small businesses, family businesses, and entrepreneurs. So we want to make sure we advocate for others, not just as a construction company, but really as a development company."

This article is part of "Detroit Innovation," a series highlighting community-led projects that are improving the vitality of neighborhoods in Detroit, while recognizing the potential of residents to work with partners to solve the most pressing challenges facing their communities.

The series is supported by the New Economy Initiative, a project of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan that's working to create an inclusive, innovative regional culture.

Photos by Anthony Lanzilote

Read more articles by Dorothy Hernandez.

Dorothy Hernandez is a freelance writer and editor who frequently writes about food at the intersection of culture and business. She has contributed to NPR, Midwest Living magazine, Eater, and a variety of other publications. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @dorothy_lynn_h.