From Bath City to Tech City: Mt. Clemens

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Tech and start-ups aren’t things that are usually associated with downtown Mt. Clemens, but they are becoming increasingly key words there thanks to in a growing cluster of new economy entrepreneurs.

Downtown Mt. Clemens is traditionally known for two things. By day it’s the legal community that toils in the Macomb County seat’s court system. By evening it’s the nightlife as the east side’s pre-eminent downtown hotspot. Now the Clem, as some locals affectionally call Mt. Clemens, is starting to earn a reputation as a space for east-side tech firms to set up shop in a happening urban area with few barriers of entry.

“I think of Mt. Clemens as a cool little gem nobody knows about,” says Jimmy Gwizdala, head huncho at Hunch Free, a digital marketing firm he moved from downtown Birmingham to downtown Mt. Clemens. “It has cool bars and a waterfront. We have been here for four years and we have no urge to go back to Birmingham. We love it here.”

Hunch Free isn’t alone. There are a handful of tech firms that have made the move to downtown Mt. Clemens in recent months. Those include noted software/mobile app developer eyeWyre Software Studios, online fantasy sports startup StatClash, a Groupon-like startup for golf courses called GroupGolfer, XFX Studio Web Development and website development firm The Red Theory.

“Mt. Clemens has a variety of unique offerings,” says Stephen Saph Jr., booard chair of the Mt. Clemens Downtown Development Authority. “The downtown is walkable and it’s compact enough that it only takes a few minutes to get from one side to the other.”

Eye of The Clem

The biggest tech score for downtown Mt. Clemens might be eyeWyre Software Studios, a 13-year-old software firm Crain’s Detroit Business ranked as the fourth largest mobile app developer in Metro Detroit.

That ranking is based on eyeWyre Software Studios’ six-million mobile app downloads as of May. That placed it just under new economy startup darling Detroit Labs and a few spots ahead of the highest-ranked mobile app developer based in Ann Arbor. Among eyeWyre Software Studios’ biggest clients are LLamasoft and Saagara, two tech firms based in downtown Ann Arbor.

Matt and Suzanne Chartier (husband and wife, and president and director of engineering services of eyeWyre Software Studios, respectively) moved the company from an Office Space-style office park in Shelby Township to downtown Mt. Clemens almost a year ago. The choice was easy because the partners hated the blandness of the old office park and loved the vibrancy of the Mt. Clemens central business district.

“We want to be in an environment where people want to go to work,” Suzanne Chartier says. “We don’t want our people to get into their cars and say, ‘Oh God, I don’t want to go to work.’”

Downtown Mt. Clemens wasn’t the only option for eyeWyre Software Studios. It considered spaces in downtowns across the region, including Royal Oak, Ferndale and Detroit. It came close to taking a space in downtown Detroit next to the Renaissance Center, but instead took the first floor of the old Firehouse No. 2 in downtown Mt. Clemens.

Partners in Architecture
renovated the circa-1908 firehouse into its headquarters a few years ago. It turned the first floor into an open, loft-style office space for eyeWyre Software Studios earlier this year. It comes complete with hand-hewn beams salvaged from an old barn, lamps made of vintage brass fire hose nozzles that were once used in the firehouse and the fanciest bathroom this writer has seen in an office building in Metro Detroit. It’s an office that can compete with anything in else in the region. “The space,” as Matt Chartier puts it, “was a really big factor.”

“We saw the potential to turn this space into what we wanted it to be,” he adds.

That could also be a metaphor for tech entrepreneurs in downtown Mt. Clemens. The Chartiers say they overpaid a little to customize their space but it comes at a fraction of the price of a comparable office in downtown Ann Arbor or Royal Oak. Plus, they get to be the big fish in the small-but-growing tech pond.

“This is a great opportunity for Mt. Clemens to start our own thing like what they have in Ann Arbor,” Suzanne Chartier says. She adds, “The biggest challenge is to continue to let people know that we exist. When people think about tech companies they think of Ann Arbor and Detroit. I want them to think of Mt. Clemens, too.”

Building on a Hunch

Gwizdala doesn’t just think that is possible. He thinks it’s far easier than convention wisdom dictates. To him, making that happen is as simple as stopping the brain drain from Macomb County. He sees members of the creative class who live in the likes of Shelby Township, Sterling Heights and St. Clair Shores head off to work in other areas of the region everyday. Gwizdala and Matt Chartier are both Macomb County natives/residents who used to work elsewhere. Make a cluster of tech firms and creative agencies a reality in downtown Mt. Clemens, and the brain drain problem solves itself.

“The options for rent are better and we’re closer,” Gwizdala says. “I don’t think I need a better mousetrap to compete with these guys. Would you drive an extra hour if you had to?”

Gwizdala is betting big on it. He bought a 2.5-story commercial building on 25 N Main St last year and began renovating it into the headquarters for his company and a co-working space for startups and entrepreneurs. The second floor is now an open space with individual offices, exposed brick walls and a bar that will soon have a wall of microbrew taps next to it. It’s the office space Hunch Free’s 12 employees and one intern feel at home in. The first floor, about 6,000 square feet, is being renovated into a co-working space that will have room for both individual entrepreneurs and small start-ups. Gwizdala expects 15-20 companies will move into the building when it’s finished, and that it could happen within six months. The first tenant is moving in this week.

“The model is so proven now,” Gwizdala says. “This should have been done three years ago.”

– Jon Zemke is the Innovation Jobs News Editor for Metromode, Concentrate and Model D. He is also the Managing Editor of SEMichiganStartup. On top of that, he is a building nerd who is genuinely impressed with what the likes of the Gwizdala and the Chartiers are doing in downtown Mt. Clemens.

Article source: http://www.metromodemedia.com/features/downtownmtclemenstech0314.aspx

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