Co-founder of Hatch Detroit teams with the Detroit Lions to help revitalize Motor City

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

A partner at Honigman in Detroit, the Troy native is a co-founder--with his friend and fellow Detroit-area native Ted Balowski--of Hatch Detroit, a Michigan-based 501(c)(3) organization that champions and supports independent retail businesses through funding contests, education, exposure, and mentoring. To date, Hatch Detroit has launched two area retail businesses, and recently announced its Neighborhood Initiatives program, in partnership with the Detroit Lions.

"When I moved back to the area from Chicago in 2002, one of my primary goals was to have a first-hand impact in the revitalization of the area I care most about in the country," says Gorga--who describes himself as "the shorter and blonder" of the co-founding duo. "Having lived in city neighborhoods in Chicago, I saw cool and vibrant retail as the lifeblood of a thriving and exciting neighborhood - bars, restaurants, and retail shops created an environment that attracted and retained residents, particularly young people. Hatch Detroit was founded to help add to the retail density in Detroit to accomplish that goal of attraction and retention."

Hatch Detroit specializes in Crowd Entrepreneurship, where Detroiters--in the city, the suburbs, and around the world--band together to help launch a business and revitalize a neighborhood. The organization is most well known for running retail contests where it allows the public to vote on a new brick-and-mortar independent retail business in Detroit, with the winning business getting a $50,000 grant from Comerica and $50,000 in free services.

"We collect submissions, whittle the submissions down to the top 10, and then turn it over to the public to decide," Gorga says. "We had 65,000 votes cast in the first contest and doubled that the following year. By making the contest so high visibility it shines a spotlight on the amazing retail ideas in Detroit and exposes the nine non-winners to other potential funding sources and the public generally."

Gorga notes that this method allows Hatch Detroit to make an exponential impact by indirectly launching many more businesses and enhancing Detroit's retail image.

The 2011 Hatch Detroit Contest Winner was Hugh--a men's store located in the newly constructed Auburn building on Cass Avenue in downtown Detroit.

"I've never been prouder than when Hugh, the winner of our first contest, opened its doors last fall--it was a tangible validation of the hard work the team had put in and the support shown for Detroit entrepreneurs by the region and the country," Gorga says. "What has been even more inspirational has been how the winners and the non-winners alike have worked hand in hand to help each other succeed. That's vintage Detroit."

The 2012 contest brought in more than 250 business plan submissions, a 25 percent increase over the prior year. From a vegan café with a soulful twist to a business that seeks to bring kayak rentals to the riverfront, the semi-finalists represented Detroit's creative entrepreneurship at its best, Gorga says.

The winner was La Feria, introducing Detroiters to a Spanish dining experience under head chef and Spanish native Pilar Baron Hidalgo. Owners Elias Khalil, Naomi Khalil and Hidalgo will bring Detroit its first Spanish tapas restaurant and bar located at 4130 Cass Ave in the heart of Detroit's Cass Corridor. The restaurant, with an interior replicating the winding streets of Seville, will seat 35 with plans for a patio that will add seating for 16 more.

In addition to the $50,000 from Comerica, La Feria also will receive a number of in-kind prizes including: environmental assessment services from PM Environmental; interior design guidance from Andrea Leigh Davis; legal services from Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn; design and branding services from Team Detroit; and IT services from Strategic Staffing Solutions.

While Hatch Detroit originally focused on new business, Gorga and Balowski also wanted to do their part to support existing businesses, particularly in the neighborhoods outside of the "hot" areas of Midtown and Downtown.

As part of Neighborhood Initiatives, Hatch Detroit has partnered with the Detroit Lions to bring awareness to six historically important neighborhoods around the city--Southwest Detroit, The Villages, Jefferson East, Grandmont/Rosedale, the North End, and the first to be worked on, the Avenue of Fashion along Livernois, between Fenkell and 8 Mile. The hope is that while one business will benefit from getting a makeover, publicity, and new customers, all the surrounding businesses will feel the ripple effects of Hatch Detroit's efforts.

Lion Rob Sims and former Lion Cliff Avril along with Lion greats Charlie Sanders and Mel Farr recently joined Simply Casual owner and proprietor Rufus Bartell for a walking tour of the Avenue of Fashion.

"The Detroit Lions are a pillar of the downtown area and a key ingredient to its continued resurgence, and we feel very honored they've lent us such tremendous support," Gorga says. "Working with them, we expect over the next year to be a mouthpiece for what the retail areas in these neighborhoods need and marshal the resources to make it happen."

The Hatch team, in conjunction with the Detroit Lions, CDCs and community leaders, will select for each of these neighborhoods one business to get a "Hatch Extreme Makeover" of one of six critical retail elements--Exterior Signage and Display, Retail Packaging/Branding, Window Displays, Interior/Exterior Lighting, E-marketing/Web Production, and "Honoring the Pedestrian."

Hatch Detroit also posts progress online and via social media channels so that other business owners can see how to do such a makeover as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Not only is Gorga passionate about solving problems in Motor City, he was drawn to the practice of law by a similar problem-solving desire.

"I've always been relentless about getting to the right answer and finding a way to persuade others to agree with me," he says. "I've always had a strong competitive streak and a love of public speaking--litigation is a perfect outlet for both."

A commercial litigator, focusing on defense of companies and directors and officers in business disputes, Gorga currently is representing clients in various industries in connection with government investigations by the Securities and Exchange Commission, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"Nothing energizes me like working under that type of pressure with the great teams of lawyers at Honigman to help protect our clients' interests," he says.

Gorga, who earned his J.D. from the University of Michigan, serves as the firm's recruiting partner. Named to Brooks' Elite 40 Under 40" Class of 2013, Crain's "40 under 40, and a "Rising Star" by Michigan Super Lawyers, he also served as pro bono chair for Honigman, and in his previous position at Latham & Watkins in Chicago.

"As lawyers, we have a responsibility to help those less fortunate in our society," he explains. "It feels exceptional to be in a position as a firm to do that."

Gorga also serves on the boards of Kiva Detroit (a program providing local small businesses with microloans), the Detroit Historical Society, and the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy.

"Detroit seems to work best when traditionally opposite ends of the spectrum work together," he notes. "Detroit Historical Society is one of the foundational nonprofits in the city, and things like Kiva and Hatch are new upstarts. Having a foot in each has broadened my perspective on Detroit and solidified in my mind that cooperation among disparate groups and individuals all swimming in the same direction is essential to continued upward trajectory."

Gorga and his wife Shanna, daughter Ava, 8, and son Mason, 6, live in Birmingham, where Gorga is an active golfer, holds a season ticket for the Detroit Tigers, and enjoys playing guitar with his daughter.

Published: Thu, May 9, 2013