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Five years after the Michigan city was hit with its public health emergency, there’s good news—and signs of an entrepreneurial resurgence—coming out of Flint.
From GM plants to population figures to public services, the story of Flint, Michigan, is often told as a litany of loss. Less attention is given to what is alive in Flint—and, in fact, what is growing and hopeful.
Right now, that includes its culture of small businesses and entrepreneurship.
Five years ago this week, a switch in the city’s water supply triggered a devastating series of problems, including a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease and a surge of toxic lead caused by infrastructure that corroded from the mistreated water. Serious questions remain unresolved, as I explain in my book on the Flint water crisis, The Poisoned City. Damaged pipes are still being replaced, lawsuits and criminal cases are pending, and health needs are being monitored. Many residents still depend on bottled water from community-run delivery stations.
For small businesses in Flint, the water disaster and its aftermath made a tough road unfathomably harder. Restaurants and cafes had to figure out how to serve patrons safely, and to do so in a way that earned trust. Signs appeared on windows, declaring that they used only filtered and purified water. Some of those systems were paid for with assistance from philanthropists.
The water crisis, which came on the heels of years of disinvestment and exodus, also contributed to a national image of the city as a site of intractable poverty. But it failed to staunch the purpose and pride of the city’s small business community. Indeed, over the last few years, the city has quietly scored a number of economic development wins.
A $37.9 million Hilton Garden Inn hotel is due to open in a historic downtown building in 2020. Lear, a company that makes vehicle seats, recently opened a new manufacturing facility in Buick City, a long-vacant brownfield once occupied by GM. The Flint Institute of Arts, a 90-year-old museum and art school, cut the ribbon on a new wing for contemporary crafts, as well as a glass studio and hot shop, while the Flint Fresh Food Hub debuted with a mission of expanding healthy food access. The Berston Field House, a beloved community athletics center, was revived as a nonprofit, while 2017 saw the reopening of the Capitol Theatre, a landmark venue that sat vacant for nearly two decades. Kettering University opened a new autonomous vehicle testing track. Mott Community College is soon opening a new culinary school.
Flint’s attempt to transition from what many see as a decaying company town to a hotbed for startups might look improbable, but it’s in keeping with the town’s history, says Tyler Rossmaessler, director of economic development for the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce. “Since the Billy Durant days,” he says, referring to the founder of General Motors, “we’ve had a vibrant entrepreneurial community.”
Rossmaessler points to local resources like the 100K Ideas program, the Factory Two makerspace, and the Ferris Wheel, a co-working space that opened in 2017 in a long-vacant downtown building. The University of Michigan’s Flint campus has an entrepreneurship and innovation institute and hosts a summer camp for enterprising young people. The City of Flint runs a six-week course for startup dreamers.
There’s evidence this effort is paying off. According to data from Square, the payment processing company whose services are popular with small businesses and startup retailers, there’s been a 40 percent net increase in Flint businesses that use the company’s service in the five years since the water switch. While many businesses in Flint do not use Square, a company representative says this is “particularly strong” growth for a community of this size. Also, sales at small businesses using Square in Flint grew 250 percent since 2014, from $10 million to $36 million.
But doing business in post-water-crisis Flint is more than a numbers game: It’s part of the recovery process itself.
Just ask Tyler Bailey at Totem Books. The independent bookstore opened in 2015 in a large building on East Court Street that was an independent pharmacy for years before becoming a party store of some ill repute. In addition to new and used books, it now boasts vinyl records, a chef-run café, and a robust schedule of programs that have helped make it a community hub.
Bailey has worked at Totem since 2017. Asked his job title, he provides a multi-dimensional answer. “There are times when I’m like a local bibliomancer,” he says, finding books for you. And then I’m the unofficial empath of Genesee County, then a barista, and at times a bartender for Drag Queen Bingo Night.”
Other regular events at Totem include Witches Tea for a group of pagans, comedy night, and children’s storytime. The shop hosts everything from board meetings to visits from teenagers in a recovery program. During one of the latter, Bailey connected with a young person over a shared love of Harry Potter (he’s got two tattoos to prove it), and encouraged him to read the fourth book in the series. The teenager loved the first three but feared he was too slow a reader to go further, given the size and heft of the later books. Three days later, the teen was back in the store with his mom, reading in a corner. “I hadn’t seen him smile like this in months,” the mom told Bailey.
He was so moved, he says, he later found himself “in my car, chain-smoking, ugly crying, and emailing the case manager: ‘This is how real change happens!’”
Nodding to the space’s former identity as a pharmacy, Bailey says that, “in a way, we went full circle into feeding people and helping people in a different way.”
Totem doesn’t enjoy “massive tax breaks, or a lot of political leverage in our location, or tons of big heavy sales days,” he says. It’s buoyed by the fact that “Flint pointedly makes an effort to help it survive.” The store’s owner, Dean Yeotis, is “very much attuned to the reality of the situation. His ultimate goal with Totem is to break even. He just wants it to exist.”
Lev Hunter, the 34-year-old founder of the Flint coffee and tea business The Daily Brew, is another homegrown entrepreneur with a community mission. While he gets his coffee startup off the ground, he’s also working at a hospital to provide wraparound services for victims of violent crime.
Hunter sold his first pound of beans in November 2017, and he’s now profitable. What’s hard, though—besides the fact that he has to work several jobs at once—is that The Daily Brew doesn’t have a physical space yet. He has been operating online and through a series of pop-up shops. Finding a real brick-and-mortar home is his ultimate goal; in the meantime, he’s trying to find money for an espresso machine. Capital can be hard to come by for Flint startups.
The city is still in transition from its former economic identity. His generation, Hunter says, was the last to have parents who almost universally worked for General Motors. It was a “drastic switch” and while many are eager to become entrepreneurs, funding models haven’t caught up to fully support them.
In the meantime, Hunter is building buzz in unconventional ways. Not only does he host pop-ups around the city and region, but he delivers Facebook livestreams every weekday morning at 8 o’clock. Technology helps even the playing field, Hunter says. “Hey, I can start a business from home from my phone, from a small place in Flint, Michigan.”
And, as with Totem, lots of people are rooting for him. People with proud connections to Flint are all over the country, and they can find him, follow him, and buy his coffee online. “The community wants to see you win,” he says. “They want to support you.”
The tenacity that’s so often used to describe Flint’s residents can pay off in entrepreneurial culture. “People think you’re not able to have success or that a successful business can actually grow from Flint,” Hunter says. “But think about it. A successful entrepreneur has to have what some call grit, some call resilience. You’ve got to have resilience if you’re dealing with a water crisis.”
Rossmaessler of the chamber of commerce also zeroed in on the concept. “We talk about resilience … like that’s how you be nice to people when they’re down, but data show how resilient the people of Flint are, how during the economic downtown and mass unemployment, they shifted disproportionately to entrepreneurship methods. They’re tinkerers.”
That’s partly out of a sense of urgency, Hunter adds. Someone with access to venture capital in New York City might start a business, and “blow that money, then say, ‘Oh well, it didn’t work out.’ But in Flint, this how they eat. This is what they do to feed their families.”
When it comes to recruiting larger companies to invest in Flint, Rossmaessler says that the city has plenty of practical advantages—availability of land and workers. But even there, conversations come back to purpose. Companies could “make widgets in a greenfield or some farmer’s old farm in the middle of nowhere”—or they could “be part of something bigger.”
In a sense, the water crisis has opened certain doors. “People are drawn to the story and want to be part of a comeback,” the economic development director says. “We would never wish the water crisis on ourselves, or our worst enemy, but it did make us known. We’re not losing that opportunity.”
While Rossmaessler doesn’t think Flint is ready to write a playbook for other disinvested cities, he believes that the “intentional effort” behind the Forward Together campaign—which unites the economic development efforts of the city, the county, and the chamber—could be a model for other cities. In a region riven by inequality, segregation, and disinvestment, Forward Together is premised on the idea that “if we’re going to succeed in the future, we need to do it together.” That means aligning resources—including philanthropic assets, which have disproportionate power and influence in poorer communities—into a shared strategy for economic vitality.
“There’s real heartache out there,” Rossmaessler says. “You can never take away from that. But people call us every day because of Flint.”
It’s a long game. Flint's population has been falling since at least 1970, and it's not clear how or when it will stabilize. Every time “someone’s son or daughter moves to Chicago,” it feels like a loss, Rossmaessler adds. “There’s that leakage that’s like a slow emergency. It’s not the one dramatic thing that was a loss, it’s the perception we’re telling ourselves about this place, and the perception the country holds for us, and that slow leakage.”
Ebonie Gipson is another born entrepreneur. As a child, she collected scraps of fabric from her mother, a seamstress, and sewed them into purses. Later, she started a business to sell hair extensions. Nowadays, she parlays years of experience in retail management into I’m Building Something, a consulting business serving Flint-area entrepreneurs.
Small Business Saturdays, a pop-up shop on Saginaw Street during Flint’s monthly Art Walk, and an outdoor market for ten businesses (and a DJ and karaoke machine) that energizes a key intersection—this is part of what I’m Building Something does.
“It solves a few problems,” Gipson says. Many clients are part of an underserved population that aren’t well integrated into downtown. “It’s gotten a lot better in the last two years, but it’s a great challenge to make a more diverse area downtown.” Existing businesses “may not have that access to a different clientele” and start-ups can get experience in filling a business space.
“One of the misconceptions is that it’s a level playing field,” she says of local entrepreneurship culture. “Let’s not just say we need to be more inclusive, but actually be more inclusive. My thing is: Let’s get from ownership of the problem to actual change.”
She adds that, “a great piece of the city is not even comfortable coming to the downtown area.” Changing that means organizations need to make themselves available in new ways. “There’s a reason they do not feel invited. Did you actually send an invitation, though?”
Now Gipson is expanding I’m Building Something’s pop-ups to other neighborhoods; in June, she’s adding a second storefront on Saginaw Street that’ll be used as a shared retail space for entrepreneurs. It will be a consistent brick-and-mortar space for six entrepreneurs at a time to place their wares, available by application. (The outdoor market is first-come first serve.)
“A lot of small businesses don’t have that in-between space,” Gipson said, the one that comes between “the hustle and the official. That is the problem this space will solve.”
The fifth anniversary of the destructive water switch has brought a spotlight back to the many problems that Flint still faces. Community organizers and advocates held a day of events at the water treatment plant and the state capitol in Lansing to highlight the unfinished business of the recovery effort. Public trust hasn't yet been rebuilt.
And at the same time, there is the quiet heroism of day-to-day business in Flint.
“There’s so much to dog about Flint, and rightfully so,” says Bailey of Totem Books. “Epic hot mess. But peel off the layers of a broken city council, of emergency mangers, [former governor] Rick Snyder, crime, and awful statistics, and you get to the heart of the people. If you want to be where … you can finally exhale, you want to be with the empaths, the sensitive, happy, cautiously optimistic people, and you’ll still find them in Flint. They’re just not as loud, but just as powerful.
“I’d like to be home base for those people.”
Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit.