Escalating violent crime threatens to push out city's small businesses

By Corey Williams

Associated Press

DETROIT (AP) -- Business and city leaders are banking on a trendy, upscale grocer and the first major shopping center in decades to continue the retail revival of Detroit's main business corridor, but the outlook is less promising in other parts of the city where small businesses say escalating crime is pushing them out.

Owners and managers of shops in and around Detroit say too few police officers and an inability to stem citywide crime have placed the small business community in jeopardy. The killings of two store owners and shooting of a clothing shop worker have added to the worry.

The grim view is in stark contrast to the optimism on display this week during groundbreaking ceremonies for a Whole Foods Market in Midtown and a Meijer store on the former state fairgrounds. They are to be the most recent additions to a thin ribbon of vitality slowly stretching north from downtown along Woodward Avenue.

The nine-mile stretch once known for prostitutes and boarded-up buildings now boasts a top sports and entertainment district and resurgent downtown office community along with Wayne State University, the Detroit Institute of the Arts and the Detroit Medical Center complex of hospitals in Midtown, where condos are sprouting up and Whole Foods plans to open by 2013.

The Woodward corridor, where a high-speed light rail line has been proposed, also features something else coveted by many small businesses located apart from the main thoroughfare: people and police.

Indeed, Whole Foods and Meijer are prizes for Detroit, which for decades has struggled to attract a national grocer or big box retailer. Meanwhile, many small business operators don't want to be forgotten as the city's pervasive crime problem threatens their livelihood -- and lives.

But combating crime and instilling a feeling of safety is no easy task for the cash-poor city that's trying to erase a $265 million deficit and may have to reduce police ranks by more than 100 positions and rely more on reserve officers.

"The bad economy we survived. The crime is what's making us move," said Chahdi Mahdoyu who manages an Athlete's Foot shoe and apparel shop that has been robbed or burglarized seven times in six years. "Before, we had insurance and the robberies would be covered. After the third time, we have no insurance. It was canceled because of too many claims."

He said police rarely patrol Jefferson Avenue or the mostly empty east side parking lot where his shop is located. The owner likely will close the store, seeking safer locations outside the city, Mahdoyu said.

Gov. Rick Snyder has promised help from the state police. The FBI and other federal agencies are assisting city police in a high-crime east side area. Mayor Dave Bing and the city's police chief have asked the public to help report lawbreakers. But crime numbers have yet to go down.

The 1,574 robberies between Dec. 27 and April 29 nearly mirror the number from the same period the previous year. By May 13, murders had climbed to 119, equaling the same number committed through that date in 2011.

"The crime rate ... some people are saying they have never seen it this bad," said Auday Arabo, chief executive of the Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers. The organization represents 4,000 party store and gas station owners in Michigan and surrounding states.

"There is no sense of where it's coming from. You don't know who to watch," Arabo said of the crime. "A lot of customers say they don't want to shop in Detroit because they are afraid they will be robbed coming out (of stores)."

A week after Fred Dally's May 1 shooting death outside his west side convenience store, Nathan Feingold was fatally beaten with a baseball bat and robbed inside the antique store he owned on the city's southwest side.

On Monday, a worker inside a west side clothing shop was shot, and his car and store items were taken.

Many Detroit business owners have resorted to security measures including cash registers behind protective glass, in-house guards and locked entrances in which only certain customers are allowed in.

Some shop mangers are arming themselves. After the last holdup at the shoe store he manages, Mahdoyu got a concealed weapons permit and a handgun.

City records show there were about 33,000 licensed businesses in Detroit last year, about the same as the previous year. But that number doesn't account for the businesses that pass on having a Detroit address.

The city's violent crime convinced Wyndy Emerson to find a location outside Detroit -- in the suburb of Southfield -- to open her N'Finite clothing store.

"Police don't come fast enough (in Detroit)," Emerson said.

The only Detroit location she would consider is along Woodward Avenue, which she considers to be safer than most retail areas.

Other main business arteries in Detroit, which has dropped from nearly 2 million residents to slightly more than 700,000, are dealing with boarded-up storefronts and mostly empty strip malls.

Woodward is the exception.

"From a real estate development perspective (Woodward Avenue) is one of the few places where there is real momentum, where there are qualified developers who see opportunities and can make projects work," said Olga Stella, vice president of business development for the Detroit Economic Growth Corp.

Published: Fri, May 18, 2012