Q&A: Matthew Clayson of Detroit Creative Corridor Center

As part of this special edition devoted to high growth companies in Detroit called "Gazelles," Jon Zemke spoke to Matthew Clayson, director of the Detroit Creative Corridor Center in New Center. Clayson and DC3 are helping to incubate fresh new concepts in creative business and are key players in the growth and innovation movement.

The greater downtown area has attracted a wide variety of creative firms, ranging from tech startups to music companies to big advertising agencies. Does it make more sense to have large selection of firms like this or focus on firms from one sector?

Concentrations of similar firms and similar industries are good. Such concentrations encourage competition, collaboration, shared experience and shared expectations. Moreover, firms like to cluster, be it Madison Avenue, various financial districts, garment districts, etc. In high markets, these clusters happen organically. In emerging markets, a certain amount of visioning, business planning and partnership building is required to incubate such clusters. Our work at the Detroit Creative Corridor Center helps creative sector firms through these stages.

There are a number of empty buildings downtown, creating a seemingly limitless number of opportunities for creative firms to carve out their own space. Is it possible those sorts of opportunities will become significantly fewer and farther between over the next 5-10 years?

Unfortunately, many of the vacant buildings downtown require a fair amount of rehab work to make them ready for occupancy. Serious abatement and structural issues need to be addressed in many of the existing vacant buildings, making them more suitable for a developer than for a creative firm. Regardless, we have worked with many out-state developers interested in tackling some of these difficult projects, and believe that the market in the greater downtown area is almost at the level where some of these projects will begin to make financial sense for developers. Once re-developed, these buildings will be prime addresses for creative firms.

What sort of signs should we look for that will indicate the greater downtown Detroit area has reached a tipping point regarding creating a concentration of creatively inclined firms?

Market driven density: a marketplace that suggests office, studio, residential or green space trumps parking lots as the highest and best use of vacant or underperforming land in the greater downtown area.

A company like Woodbridge's Recycle Here! has turned a kind of mundane practice (recycling) and helped make it vibrant and successful by incorporating a plethora of public art. Should more traditional businesses follow Recycle Here!'s example and what kind of positives should the ones that do expect from these efforts?

Recycle Here! is a nice example of this occurring at the early stage, bottom up level. Nonetheless, let's not forget that many large, established firms in Southeast Michigan have also adopted a practice of incorporating art into the workplace: whether it be Compuware, Masco Corporation, Daimler Financial or scores of other corporations that employ curators, have strong community arts programs, serve as patrons to local fine artists, etc.

Regardless, if we really want to talk about positioning Southeast Michigan and Detroit as a global leader in design and creativity, we need to talk about this corporate activity translating to corporate advocacy. Arts education and related programming in our K-12 schools are being gutted in the name of more S.T.E.M. and better standardized test results. While one vs the other shouldn't be an either/or decision, current funding realities have rendered it as such. State funding for arts and cultural affairs, though steadily increasing under the Snyder administration, is still well below 2000 levels. Arts education and state support of arts and cultural activities are foundational items: both are essential in training and inspiring the next generation of designers and artists.

The creative industries are often viewed as some sort of after thought: something nice to "gentrify" a "transitional" neighborhood or community. Lost in this overly-simplistic analysis: the creative industries as an economic engine key to the region's long-term success. The creative sector is the third largest private sector employer in the City of Detroit, accounting for over 13,000 jobs. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while overall employment in Michigan is expected to grow by 7.6 percent from 2010 to 2018, creative industry jobs are expected to grow 9.4 percent. Average wages are higher for workers in the creative sector ($71,000 to $47,000), too.

Photos by Marvin Shaouni

Read more articles by Jon Zemke.

Jon Zemke is a news editor with Model D and its sister publications, Metromode and Concentrate. He's also a small-scale real-estate developer and landlord in the greater downtown Detroit area.