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Detroit’s best kept small business secret: District Business Liaisons

Oct 21, 2021

While Detroit’s small business owners continue to face challenging times, there have never been more tools and resources available to help them succeed. Providing a roadmap to Detroit’s array of small business assets is a team of true superheroes: District Business Liaisons (DBLs).

What are District Business Liaisons?

DBLs are neighborhood business owners’ number one advocate. They represent all seven Detroit council districts and are in tune with the issues directly affecting each neighborhood’s economy. That includes the small-to-medium-sized businesses along the corridors, as well as those that are home-based. DBLs support business owners with the everyday challenges they face – whether it’s starting, maintaining or growing a business – and connect them with the necessary tools and resources to be successful.

How Can They Help?

DBLs can help business owners navigate the City’s processes and assist with issues such as permitting, zoning and licensing. DBLs can also support owners with securing loans, grants, and talent, or finding free expert business help. DBLs work closely with the Mayor’s Office, City Council and local business support organizations to ensure Detroit’s small business community not only survives but thrives.

As liaisons to the City, DBLs often facilitate community engagement with business owners throughout construction and neighborhood development projects. They can represent business owners’ concerns by taking the issues back to the City for solutions and can track neighborhood business trends and data to inform future programming and process improvements that will directly benefit Detroit’s small businesses.

DBLs in Action

DBLs have helped business owners survive a variety of challenges. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic, Nancy Thomas, owner of J’s Café – located at 20853 Grand River Ave. – ran into a problem: J’s Café had customers coming through the door, but the sidewalks were in bad shape.

“How can you attract customers to your business when you can’t create a welcoming environment?” asked Thomas. Faced with this issue, she contacted Tenecia Johnson, District 1 DBL, for help.

Thanks to Johnson’s understanding of the area’s infrastructure plans, she was able to advocate for the café’s sidewalk repairs as part of the Grand River Streetscape project – a partnership with the Michigan Department of Transportation and the City of Detroit to provide streetscape improvements to approximately 2.8 miles of road from the M-39 Service Drive to Berg Road.

Then, at the onset of the pandemic, Thomas was required to temporarily close her doors due to the State-ordered shutdown. Again, she called on Johnson for help.

Johnson was able to connect Thomas with the City of Detroit Restaurant Carryout Zone Program, which allowed restaurants free on-street Carryout Zone parking to make it easier for customers to pick up “to-go” orders.

Once the shutdown was lifted, Johnson pointed Thomas to one-on-one business coaching and reopening playbooks from Detroit Means Business to ensure J’s Café had the necessary tools to reopen safely. With Johnson’s help, Thomas applied for and received relief funding through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s Michigan Restart Grant program and the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program.

J’s Café is one of the many small businesses in Detroit still recovering from the financial impact of the pandemic. However, with help from her DBL, Thomas was never alone. She was able to take advantage of City programs to keep the business afloat, acquire relief funding, and repair the sidewalk – all thanks to the power of the DBL program.

Finding your DBL

DBLs  understand that thriving small businesses mean thriving neighborhoods, and thriving neighborhoods mean a thriving city. If you’re the owner of a small or mid-sized business in Detroit, find your DBL at and get in touch today. As always, please support your local Detroit small businesses, especially as we enter the holiday season.

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