Economic Opportunity: Keep the Conversation Going

Posted on May 15, 2014 by Sarah Craft

On May 12, Meeting of the Minds and Living Cities coordinated a group blogging event where they asked leaders to share research, ideas, and stories about how cities can better connect all residents to economic opportunity. In an effort to keep the conversation going, I’m writing my thoughts a few days later. So keep talking! And more importantly, do your part to act on recommendations shared during the discussions.

Clark Park in Detroit offers after-school opportunities to youth.

Clark Park in Detroit offers after-school opportunities to youth.

Clearly, the United States struggles with a deep economic divide and Michigan is no exception. We have cities like Bloomfield Hills where per capita income exceeds $100,000, but we also have cities like Benton Harbor where it’s only around $9,000. As the state works to recover the economy, policymakers and local leaders must make equal economic opportunity a priority. Focusing on all of MML’s asset areas can certainly promote equal opportunity, but issues of education, entrepreneurship, and transportation are key ways to level the economic opportunity playing field.


There are wonderful initiatives and programs happening across the state to promote youth development and education. Detroit’s Clark Park Coalition offers recreational activities and tutoring to neighborhood youth that keep them active and engaged after school hours. Studies show that youth violent crime occurs most often after school and unsupervised eighth graders are twice as likely to smoke, drink alcohol or use drugs in the after school hours. Giving youth opportunities to participate in community-based development programs, like activities Clark Park offers, helps students achieve positive academic and social outcomes.

Students learn valuable life skills through Clark Park's programming.

Students learn valuable life skills through Clark Park’s programming.

Community schools are a new model for education that make schools a neighborhood hub. Schools partner with social service agencies, health services, and tutoring and enrichment after-school programs to ensure education is focused on the whole child and their family.

Following the community schools model, Kent County Community Schools have already made an impact on students’ lives by reducing student absenteeism. Some schools in Southwest Detroit began a community schools model last year and are now open 12 hours a day, seven days a week to assist children and their families throughout the year.

A study by the Children’s Aid Society shows community schools offer a variety of positive impacts:

  • For every $1 a school system spends on partnerships, it sees a return of $4 in the value of service the district receives.
  • Economically disadvantaged children who spend 20-30 hours of their free time each week in engaged learning earn better grades in school than their counterparts.
  • Parent involvement is significantly higher in community schools than in schools with more traditional education models.

Expanding education models like community schools can deeply impact economic opportunity for all of Michigan’s children. Helping Michigan youth develop into active and educated adults is important to the state’s success.

Restaurant La Feria won a $50,000 Hatch grant in 2012.

Restaurant La Feria won a $50,000 Hatch grant in 2012.


New business in Michigan is on the rise and the Michigan Venture Capital Association found that the state’s venture funds have increased 44% since 2009. Alternative funding programs are popping up across the state, like Hatch Detroit, which hosts an annual competition granting $50,000 to an innovative local business concept in Detroit. Entrepreneurs can now even use crowdfunding to start their business.

New hubs for small and growing businesses to use shared space, pool resources, and create a local business community are opening across Michigan. For example, Rust Belt Market is a repurposed big-box commercial space in Ferndale that now acts as a downtown small business mall and community center. Similarly, the Technology Innovation Center in East Lansing is a hub and shared workspace for small tech businesses in the middle of the state.

Ferndale's Rust Belt Market offers a space for small businesses to sell their products.

Ferndale’s Rust Belt Market offers a space for small businesses to sell their products.

Ensuring entrepreneurship opportunities are available to all residents is a challenge, but crucial to the state’s success. According to Global Detroit, Michigan’s immigrant population provides enormous contributions to the state’s economic growth:

  • Between 1990 and 2005, 25% of all public, venture-backed firms launched in the US were started by immigrants, though immigrants only make up 12.5% of the population.
  • In Michigan, immigrant-owned businesses produced more than $1.5 billion in annual business income in 2000.
  • Between 1996 and 2007, Michigan’s foreign-born were more than three times as likely as nonimmigrants to start a new business.

Expanding programs like ProsperUS Detroit, which offers entrepreneurial training and technical assistance to the city’s minority and immigrant populations, can encourage economic opportunity for all.

Commuters board an afternoon bus in Ann Arbor.

Commuters board an afternoon bus in Ann Arbor.


As Michigan’s metro regions expand further from city-centers, economic opportunity becomes an important concern. A CNN Money report found that residents in more sprawling cities have fewer economic opportunities, are less healthy, and have shorter life spans than people who live in more compact areas. Suburban poverty is growing quickly and local governments need to focus on making transportation more effective and affordable.

Transit-oriented development can encourage a strong economy and improve resident quality of life. Ensuring transportation and transit-oriented development is positive for all residents but leaders need to encourage equitable growth.

Effective transportation is key to economic opportunity in Michigan.

Effective transportation is key to economic opportunity in Michigan.

For example, The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority’s soon-to-be expanded bus routes better connects Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township, communities of varying wealth and opportunity. Under the new plans, residents will have easier access to jobs, cultural activities, and retail, which is important to the state’s recovery. Collaborative, long-term planning strategies are an important step in furthering transit-related economic opportunities across the state.

The state of Michigan has a long way to go before everyone has equal economic opportunity, but focusing efforts on education, entrepreneurship, and transit can be an important step to help us get there. But this blog doesn’t do any good unless the conversation continues and people take action!

Use resources mentioned here to make your case for economic opportunity where you live and across the state. Talk to neighbors, businesses, nonprofits, and local leaders, and start making some action toward a better state for all.

Useful Articles and Reports Mentioned in this Blog

  • Children’s Aid Society: Measuring Social Return on Investment for Community Schools
  • District Administration: Double Duty: Schools as Community Centers
  • Southwest Solutions: Community Schools Model Gathers Partners and Supporters to Help Students and Families Succeed
  • Michigan Municipal League: Partnership for Place
  • Michigan Venture Capital Association: Michigan Venture Capital Association Research Report Shows Upward Trend
  • Global Detroit: Global Detroit
  • ProsperUS Detroit
  • Living Cities: Advancing Equitable Transit-Oriented Development

Sarah Craft is an Information & Policy Research Program Coordinator at the Michigan Municipal League. She can be reached at 734-669-6328 or [email protected].

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