Nick Gorga ’99 sees hope in storefronts. He and his friend Ted Balowski founded Hatch Detroit, a nonprofit organization promoting independent retail stores in the city, on the belief that local, diverse retail spurs urban revitalization. Hatch’s current centerpiece is a contest: Potential small-business owners submit business plans, Hatch leaders narrow the list, and then a public vote selects the winner, which receives $50,000 in startup funds and another $50,000 worth of in-kind services.
In its first contest, last year, Hatch received about 200 entries. A retro home-furnishings store for men, called Hugh, won and plans an October opening in a new downtown building. Hugh beat out such businesses as a wine bar with live music and a gypsy-inspired tea room. Gorga says several of the finalists, despite not winning, intend to open soon, buoyed by the attention they received in the contest.
This year’s winner, announced in late September, was La Feria, a tapas restaurant and wine bar that bested about 275 other entries. A new corporate sponsor, Comerica Bank, put up this year’s $50,000 prize.
A Detroit native and lawyer, Gorga realized a few years ago that he couldn’t simply wish for the redevelopment of his hometown. “I was sitting in Chicago. I was happy there. I loved it. I had a great job,” he says. “But I found myself complaining about the brain drain from Detroit. Then I stopped — that’s me. I’m the brain drain.” He moved back to Detroit in the summer of 2008, in time to witness the financial crisis, the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler, and the worst of the housing collapse ravage an already-battered city.
Gorga and Balowski hunted for a way to contribute to metro Detroit’s renewal, but they didn’t want to duplicate other efforts. When Gorga lived in Chicago, he had seen neighborhoods turn around by building buzz and foot traffic around hip, vibrant retail businesses. By introducing voting to Hatch Detroit, they hoped to engage the public, benefiting both winners and runners-up with publicity while building enthusiasm.
“It’s a really clear, simple call to action to Detroiters,” says Rishi Jaitly ’04, who directs grants for the Knight Foundation in Detroit and serves on Hatch Detroit’s board. “They’re working on a topic [entrepreneurship] that already has momentum coalescing around it.”
Hatch Detroit isn’t really a competition, says Gorga, it’s community-building. Several of last year’s contestants have banded together to help each other launch their businesses.
“I want to leave my thumbprint on the revitalization of the area I care about most in the world,” Gorga says.