by Mark Rummel
Suppose some creative people turned an empty seven-story art-deco building on the downtown main street of a Midwest city into an amazing entrepreneurial business hub.
What if they invested their own time, talents and money to turn it into a state-of-the-art business center, where newcomers and long-established companies could share office spaces and grow separately yet together?
That has become a reality — at the Ferris Wheel Innovation Center at 615 S. Saginaw Street in downtown Flint. Since it opened late in 2017, 50-plus companies at all stages of development have found a business home at the Ferris Wheel. Plus, a former eyesore structure has new life and new opportunities to lead the rebirth of Flint, in the center of bustling Genesee County.
Old and new companies and individuals inquire about becoming part of the Ferris Wheel success story nearly every day, says General Manager Heather Kale. “You don’t really have to sell this space; the space sells itself,” she told reporters soon after the grand opening barely two years ago.
Those 50 companies in all stages of development have come to Flint from Detroit, Grand Rapids and other U.S. cities as far away as Atlanta, Ga. Thanks to this interest, the seven-floor Ferris Wheel building is being transformed and is creating an economic boom in the city.
“It’s really about leveraging strengths on both sides; leveraging the strengths of the new entrepreneurs and start-ups — and then, also the strengths of the more-established businesses and marrying the two,” Kale told reporters recently. And, even though they are different companies, many building tenants are working together and benefiting from helping each other grow.
There is a casual yet electric feeling throughout the Ferris Wheel. The 40,000 square-foot concrete building is bright and welcoming. Sleek, modern aluminum and glass room dividers are everywhere. A busy Foster Coffee shop near the front entrance helps get creative juices flowing each morning, plus Flint Prints provides many types of printing and paper needs.
“The ecosystem itself — folks come in, they have the retail opportunity, they can grab a cup of coffee, they can ship something. Just having the benefits and resources within one building is a benefit in itself,” Kale said.
The Ferris Wheel building was once home to several furniture companies and the former Ferris Brothers Furs business, the Ferris Wheel’s namesake. But it had closed in the 1980s as Flint struggled in dire economic times, and sat vacant for 36 years.
But local businessman Phil Hagerman saw amazing potential in that empty building, and he knew Flint was ready to begin rebounding toward greatness again. He purchased the building and began a $7.5 million renovation through SkyPoint Ventures LLC, his venture capital and real estate firm. In all, Hagerman has invested an estimated $50 million in multiple projects throughout Flint, including charitable gifts and business investments.
The Ferris Wheel concept was boosted by a $1.5 million grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, plus wide-ranging support from a community coping with a water crisis but willing to invest in its own future. “Noting is about what happens today,” Hagerman told the entrepreneurs, students and community leaders at the 2017 ribbon cutting. “It’s about what happens going forward.”
Many people forget that Flint is a college town, with the University of Michigan – Flint, Kettering University and Mott Community College at its center. That access to student workers and entrepreneurs sparks a level of energy and fresh ideas unmatched elsewhere, manager Kale says.
There is room for about 500 persons working on all seven levels of the Ferris Wheel, where about 150 are now employed, Kale says. The cost to rent office space ranges from $25 for a monthly student membership to $600 for a private, furnished office on an upper floor.
The building doesn’t work like traditional office space, developer Hagerman said, and that’s fine with him. Some companies will expand successfully and no longer fit in their office space. “We’re not that worried about keeping them here,” Hagerman told the Detroit Free Press last year. “We want them here until they outgrow us.”
“We are the front door of opportunity here and we want to create that opportunity for everybody that can walk through the doors here,” Hagerman added. “We want Flint, Michigan to become kind of opportunity central here.”