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Detroit’s Chief Development Officer Speaks About Bringing Back a Distressed City

Detroit’s Chief Development Officer Speaks About Bringing Back a Distressed City

By Allison Hight, 1L
April 21, 2016

When he teamed up with the veteran-support organization Team Red, White, and Blue to run a 54-mile ultramarathon in honor of a Michigan service member who had been killed in Afghanistan, Detroit’s Chief Development Officer Ryan Friedrichs experienced a turning point in his life.

During the fall 2010 ultramarathon, he ran part of the way with the father of the service member. That, he explained, “was one of those inflection points in your life, when things just kind of change.” By the end of their conversation, he had gone from being in “a really interesting, good job as an executive of this nonprofit that I ran to say, okay, I want some time in the service.”

After four years active duty as an infantry soldier in the Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade, he was drawn back to his native Michigan. At the time, the city of Detroit was just coming out of bankruptcy, and Friedrichs wanted to use his acquired skills to help revitalize the area. “The question was,” he told his audience at a recent lunch talk at Michigan Law, “pound for pound, how could I be as useful to Detroit as possible?”

After exploring the public, private, and government sectors, Friedrichs opted for the mayor’s office in a newly created position of chief development officer for the city. A large part of his job, he said, is to “build the bridges for economic development—to build the public-private partnerships with philanthropy to move what we need to move in the city.” This has involved, among other things, securing grants from donors such as the Ford Foundation to help revitalize Detroit’s neighborhoods.

Friedrichs broke down his current work into five different main projects. One of these, Motor City Match, focuses on locating entrepreneurs outside of Midtown Detroit to the larger Detroit neighborhood corridors. Motor City Match, he explained, pairs business owners with building owners and gives them the resources to start a viable partnership. With all the blighted buildings in Detroit, it is tempting to demolish them and start over. But Friedrichs points out that “you can’t just demolish your way out of the problem. You have to build. You have to create.”

Friedrichs also described another project called the Neighborhood Fund that concentrates on replicating the development that has occurred in Midtown in the rest of the city. “You have to have a downtown core for a city to be successful,” Friedrichs noted, “but the core will take care of itself. We cannot grow the Midtown and downtown area fast enough to grow the overall City without successful and stable neighborhoods.”

Two of the priorities of this project, he told the audience, are putting in 62,000 new functioning streetlamps and getting the buses to run on time, both of which have been successful so far. “The city didn’t function for so long that the first year was spent just getting up to speed,” Friedrichs explained. “The buses had not run on time in 10 years in Detroit. That sounds simple, but that was one of the hardest things that we had to crack. These are not things that you should be celebrating in a city—turning the lights on and getting the buses to run—but that’s where we were.”

Friedrichs also discussed the remaining projects that work to improve employment, public safety, and Detroit’s education system.

Even though he is now focused on Detroit, Friedrichs remains committed to the military by promoting the work that veterans can do after their time in the service. He compared the work that he is doing now with his time Poland, drawing parallels between breaking down barriers, building trust, and eliciting community-driven solutions. The military may be more dangerous, he said, but much of the work is essentially the same: “bringing back a distressed city, building trust, co-creating solutions, finding access to capital with people. People see veterans too often as a wounded burden,” he noted, “but you’ve got to see them as an asset: the work ethic, the discipline, the ability to work with any person from any place. If you ask them to lead again, ask them to serve again, you’ll bring out their best.”

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