Detroit’s Strategic Neighborhood Fund plans take shape

Akunna Olumba and Marcus Jones want 80 percent of employees they hire for their Detroit pizza restaurant to come from a 2- to 5-mile radius.

Like most new businesses, Detroit Pizza Bar at Livernois Avenue and McNichols Road will create jobs. It’s among dozens of storefronts expected to grow out of the efforts of the Strategic Neighborhood Fund, Detroit’s financing machine for revitalization in targeted corridors outside downtown.

But the question for Olumba and Jones, and for the fund’s real estate development at large, is the quality of that economic development and who it benefits.

The public-private SNF continues to face questions on how to improve Detroiters’ built world fairly as it trudges through its second round amid a global pandemic. The 6-year-old fund started out planning changes to three separate multi-neighborhood areas outside downtown, and expanded that focus to seven additional swaths of property, for a total of 10. It’s now 3 percent away from meeting its $59 million philanthropic fundraising goal for that second iteration, termed SNF 2.0.

The fund was created as a multi-stage urban planning process with end goals from rejuvenated shopping districts to bringing jobs, increasing a neighborhood’s attractiveness and bolstering economic activity.

But the two developers renovating a 4,300-square-foot building and starting up the pizza restaurant for $1.3 million aren’t merely looking to set up shop. Olumba and Jones are being, as Jones terms it, “deliberate.” Not just researching the kind of restaurant from which the area would benefit, but also committing to train workers as part of a job pipeline.

Olumba, a Detroit native and tax attorney by trade, and Jones, who co-founded the Detroit Training Center, say they want residents’ needs to guide their business. They want equitable development. And that loaded word — equity — is at the center of questions surrounding the Strategic Neighborhood Fund.

As Olumba sees it, the fund’s role is to channel investment to the city’s existing commercial corridors, or “spokes.” Then, as jobs build and residents save money, they can buy houses and that growth can spread through the “wheels” of the city. She said SNF “feels different” from previous redevelopment initiatives in Detroit, in its supportive follow-up to see projects through completion.

Others say the SNF’s approach creates a problematic model for success and chooses winners and losers.

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