Online ideas kickstart new Detroit businesses

Posted on January 11, 2013

Detroit — Brick by brick, project by project, Detroit is being quietly rejuvenated by a movement funded by strangers helping residents launch unique ideas to improve overlooked areas of the city.

From a community dog park to a miniature golf course to a statue of 1980s film action hero RoboCop, thousands of dollars have been raised through microgrant projects to make small ideas big deals.

Under the concept, community members draft a proposal and post it on a website such as If donors decide to back the concept with enough funding, the idea is greenlit. If there isn’t enough support, no money changes hands, and the proposal goes back to the drawing board.

Detroit native Diallo Smith is one of the visionaries who saw an opportunity to develop a table tennis social club.

Smith opened Drive Table Tennis Social Club in December at 1441 Woodward Ave. in hopes of uniting Detroiters with the ever-popular pastime of Ping-Pong. Through a Kickstarter campaign, Smith has sought to extend the business’s lease, add a locker room and eventually a dinner menu.

He launched the campaign in November with a goal of raising $5,000. Forty-five days and 85 backers later, Smith exceeded his goal last week by more than $500.

“One thing we quickly realized was everyone loves Ping-Pong,” Smith said. “Almost everybody has a memory of playing in their basement. We like to take that and embed that with elegance.”

The business’s upscale downtown location is a far cry from basement table tennis as it features eight Olympic-size tables and a stage for live entertainment.

Visitors can play pickup games as well as tournaments. Portions of the proceeds go to charity as each table is designated to a nonprofit organization, including the Detroit Zoo, Gleaners Community Food Bank, Forgotten Harvest and Developing K.I.D.S.

Last week, Detroiters Amos Shaw, 62, and Bernard Cranford, 39, exchanged smack talk while enjoying a couple games.

“It’s a nice place,” Shaw said. “I’ve been here all my life, and it’s good to see you have Ping-Pong, ice-skating and all these things to do right along Woodward.”

And although Drive ( is already open to the public, Smith said the official grand opening will be Jan. 18.

Smith, a Cass Technical High School grad, said he always dreamed of owning a business and used to catch a bus a block away from where Drive is now.

“I used to walk past here every day, and I would think about owning my own business down here,” Smith said. “Lo and behold, here we are. It’s surreal.”

Motor City mini-golf

Lawrence Technological University professor Steven Coy transformed a vacant Corktown lot into Detroit’s only miniature golf course with the help of his art students, thanks to a Kickstarter campaign.

The free, urban-style course near 14th Street and Dalzelle features 17 holes, each marked with numbered hubcaps. Its three gravel pathways pay tribute to the city’s major avenues: Grand River, Woodward and Gratiot.

Each par was the brainchild of a Lawrence Tech student. Coy gave his class an option to follow the usual curriculum of designing sculptures or design a miniature golf course.

“I live in Detroit, and I thought how cool would it be to have a putt-putt course instead of making sculptures to be featured in some display,” Coy said.

Jeremy Munsterman, a junior majoring in graphic design, said he and his classmates were stunned by the idea.

“My initial reaction was: That sounds crazy,” Munsterman said. “But once we got started, everyone was gung-ho about the idea.”

But after the class set up a website ( and launched a Kickstarter campaign, it raised about $4,000 for its $2,000 goal in a matter of weeks.

Owners of Imagination Station, an organization restoring two properties near Michigan Central Station, gave the class permission to construct the project on its land.

But the real challenge began when students started drafting designs for their holes, which they knew would be susceptible to vandalism.

“We knew we couldn’t put up a fence or pay for security, so we had to design it so it could stand on its own and not easily be destroyed and vandalized,” Coy said. “That’s a part of its aesthetic value, though.”

Barks for a park

Less than a mile away, Detroiter Carly Mys saw an opportunity. Mys, who lives downtown with two retrievers, noticed that the closest dog parks were outside of the city.

In 2011, Mys began talking with several other dog owners who came up with the plan to build Detroit’s first off-leash dog park (

The group set out to raise $15,000 from Nov. 17 to Dec. 17 with Kickstarter and exceeded the goal by more than $500.

Through the Adopt-a-Park program, which allows community groups and neighborhood organizations to improve and maintain city parks, the group hopes to revive Macomb Playlot, an unkempt park near Roosevelt Park, with construction beginning this summer.

“Specifically for the dog park, it’s an amenity that’s first of its kind in the city,” Mys said. “To repurpose an unused space to create a greater sense of community in Detroit is very inspiring.”

Honoring the man-machine

One of the most successful Detroit Kickstarters was brought on by a tweet from Mayor Dave Bing, which asked what Detroit needs. One Twitter user replied a statue of RoboCop and the idea caught fire.

Imagination Station director of development Brandon Walley, 35, started drafting ideas to craft a 10-foot bronze statue with a goal of raising $50,000 in 45 days. “RoboCop” movie fans responded, and the campaign reached its target in six days, and ultimately ended with about $60,000 in donations.

“It was kind of magical,” Walley said. “We had backers from all over the world and people in Detroit thought it would be really cool, too.”

Before Walley knew it, “RoboCop” actor Peter Weller, came to Detroit to support the initiative.

The project ( also spawned a charitable crusade called RoboCharity to feed the hungry in early 2011 with Weller and Forgotten Harvest.

After three months, the mini-charity garnered $20,000 in donations, allowing Forgotten Harvest to feed about 100,000 children.

“Anytime you have a chance to engage and bring people together for a good cause like the RoboCop statue, it’s great,” Forgotten Harvest chief development officer Russ Russell said.

Walley said Detroit-based Venus Bronze Works expects to receive the 3D scan and mold for the statue this week. The statue could be installed this summer, he said.

Walley said these projects are only the beginning of a renewed Detroit.

“This shows you can do really cool important things like community gardens through this kind of funding,” he said. “Hopefully, there will be a lot more.”

Tony Brisco, The Detroit News.