It’s a booming time for construction in Detroit. The Motor City, which became an automotive powerhouse and put the world on wheels, is now finding itself channeling one construction site to another as cranes and buildings begin to change the face and skyline of Michigan’s largest city.
In just the downtown landscape alone, an emerging entertainment district will take shape with projects led by the City of Detroit, Greektown Neighborhood Partnership, Paradise Valley Cultural and Entertainment District Conservancy, Bedrock, and other important entrepreneurs who are heading up construction on revitalization and new development sites.
There are more than 4,000 construction workers in the downtown core and over 14 ongoing construction projects, according to the Michigan Building Trades Council.
From residential to large commercial projects, both on the move within downtown and dotted neighborhoods, there hasn’t always been the locally skilled and talented labor force for some of the area’s biggest development projects, particularly for Black Detroiters.
An intentional focus is now being turned to this issue, which began to gain traction as talks were underway for the Illitch’s District Detroit project. The project encompassed the development of Little Ceasars Arena, with promises to bring an adjourning entertainment, commercial, and residential district to the Woodward Avenue and I-75 corridor.
The City of Detroit government would institute a provision that developers meet a 51% threshold to hire Detroiters on major projects that sought public subsidy, and if not, the developers were left to pay a fine. The problem, historically, is entities would voice their challenges in finding the skilled labor force to meet the 51% Detroit workforce requirement.
The fines developers pay go into a city government fund to train Detroiters on the pipeline of construction projects set for years to come.
“But we don’t have enough people coming into the pipeline to backfill these jobs,” says Dannis Mitchell, Director of Community Engagement for the Detroit-founded Barton Malow construction company. Mitchell says the workforce isn’t keeping up with the pace of construction demand and the pace at which some workers retire and age out of the system.
“We have put in a lot of work on the outreach side to raise awareness, but we also, as an industry, had to collectively step up. Whether you’re a construction manager, a general contractor, a sub-contractor …we’ve had had to work in clear unison with our union partners.”
Mitchell knows something about the importance of having an inclusive representation in the construction workforce. She was tapped to lead Barton Marlow’s business and workforce inclusion efforts as its Diversity Manager and is now an industry professional with more than 20 years in construction. Her prior expertise and role in marketing helped the company win a contract during the development of Little Ceasars Arena.
She was tasked to meet a benchmark goal for working with Detroit-based businesses while challenged to meet the required 51% Detroit workforce hires.
Mitchell says the entire process gave her “a lot of motivation to uncover what the true challenge is. And what I found at the outreach events is that folks who looked like me didn’t understand what careers in construction meant.”
As Detroiters would line up for career fair events, she was greeted by people who wanted jobs in construction, but most were unaware of the over 20 trades that make up the industry.
“I realized very quickly that we as an industry have not done a good job of explaining to people what the jobs and the trades mean.”
It’s part of the reason she launched the Barton Marlow Bootcamp – a workforce development program partnered with the union and MUST Construction to give exposure on job sites and, in particular, to youth. The program would eventually draw national attention as clients of the company from across the country would ask for similar programs to be implemented within their organizations, seeking to activate workforce and supplier diversity on their own projects.
“Internally I asked for more resources and needed to build a team to do so,” Mitchell says. “I was allowed to hire several people and specifically hired young women of color to enter this space. I was very intentional about it because it allows us to go into various school districts across the country to talk about skilled trades and management jobs.”
It’s the type of early exposure to career opportunities Mitchell believes are needed, just as she received as a student at Renaissance High while also attending Randolph Vocational School. A construction internship in high school led to her career in construction, and a degree in marketing helped develop her expertise on the business side of construction.
“It all started through DPS (now, Detroit Public Schools Community District),” Mitchell says. “I think it’s important for young people to have exposure early to the various careers within construction. It’s not all just skilled trades. We need accountants, we need people in marketing, attorneys, engineers, and project managers.”
Getting into the construction industry can certainly take different routes, as did Kimle Nailer, owner of Nail-Rite Construction Company. The Detroit native got into the construction business as a result of real estate investing and figured if she had spent years fixing up houses for sale, she could certainly take on even bigger projects. Her brief period living in Chicago prepared her to do so.
“I worked at a law firm where the primary practice was for real estate investors,” Nailer said. “I was engaged in preparing the documentation as we would buy properties, fix them up, sell or rent them.”
But as Nailer aged close to 40, she says she needed an accelerator as “there was no way I could stop, and in 20 years and not have a nickel or dime saved.”
A city auction presented her the opportunity to bid and secure multiple residential properties, allowing her to collect rent while fixing up homes in her portfolio. Revitalizing came with a lot of hard work and learning.
She also saw firsthand how the development of the McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago brought nearby development and spread economic opportunity.
“Because I lived in Chicago …McCormick Place was undergoing major renovations and immediately thereafter all of the communities surrounding at skyrocket in value. So, I said, this is a great time to build.”
This realization sparked excitement that one day, this renewed investment and yielding construction projects would happen to Detroit, and she wanted to be a part of the process.
“My family had the skill of drywall finishing and when I did my research, it was ranked fourth as far as the shortage of labor in the construction industry, so I said that’s the perfect niche to have.”
After receiving her construction license, her family business began to take shape in 2015, inspired by the massive development of the Little Ceasars Arena. Her experience as a business analyst and real estate investor prepared her to enter the commercial construction industry in Detroit.
“I said construction is the industry I should be in,” Nailer explains. “This is an industry that can be reparations for the black community. The wages are higher, the projects can redevelop communities. If you stabilize the income, you more homeowners, more solid tenants, and the neighborhood stabilizes.”
Nailer started to receive the calls. From drywall work at one of the major downtown corporate companies to construction finishing work for the new Forman Mills site at Grand River and Greenfield, it was only a matter of time before her business began to take off from the shortage that existed in the market.
Nailer sees the same issues as Mitchell with not enough people of color in the construction industry. Through her efforts, she’s working to change this outcome.
“The industry being exposed to the Black community and culture is my goal,” she says. “I believe our churches should be the builders of our housing. In a one-mile radius if churches teamed up with the City of Detroit, then they should be the community partners with the Land Bank. We can then teach the skill of construction from start to finish.”
She, too, believes exposure to this opportunity must be available to students in every Detroit school again so that the “minds come early from our creative build because those may be the designing minds of the next high rise that we look to Dan Gilbert to build.”
Both Nailer and Mitchell believe that construction is critical to the transformation of elevating Black wealth and that Detroit can be a beacon of what’s possible.