Midtown’s Green Garage houses businesses with a social mission.

Think of it as one of Detroit’s little ironies: an ecologically sound, environmentally sustainable hub for start-up businesses housed in a former Model T Ford showroom. The Green Garage, located on Second Avenue in Midtown Detroit, is trying to pave a new way of developing socially conscious business in a building that once helped give birth to the automotive revolution.

Tom and Peggy Brennan, the building’s owners, have been interested in the environment since Tom sat on the board of the Monroe-based River Raisin Project, a Catholic nonprofit organization dedicated to ecology and sustainability, said Peggy during a tour of the 12,500-square-foot building.

“We sat down with about a dozen friends in 2005 and formed the Great Lakes Initiative, and that group met at our kitchen table every Tuesday morning from 10 a.m. to noon for five years and talked about different areas of environmental sustainability,” she said. “As an outgrowth of that project, we thought it would be interesting to develop a sort of green demonstration center for the things we had learned and locate it close to a university.”

When they bought the building in 2007, 200 volunteers helped with the design, followed by two more years of construction. It opened in late October 2011.
The Brennans funded the $1.5 million project, but also received brownfield tax credits from the state. They spent as much to renovate the structure as it would have cost to raze the old building and build a new one, she said. Most of the costs were for labor.

The Green Garage is considered a net-zero building: It produces as much energy as it consumes. The outside windows are very efficient. Solar tubes coming into the building help light the inside and reduce the need to heat and cool the building by 85 percent. Solar thermal panels on the roof heat water in tanks, and the water runs underneath the floors to heat the building. Brennan estimates it will cost only $300 a year to heat the building.

The interior is as beautiful as it is “green,” with the main stairway made out of old steam and gas pipes, a wall constructed from scrap wood, and the railing an old walkway that connected the two mezzanines. About 75 percent of the materials brought into the building came from the U. S. waste stream. The floor came from fallen oak and ash trees. The frames for the interior windows were donated from a powerhouse in Lansing, and all the furniture came from a Detroit Public School warehouse.
“We filled one-and-a-half dumpsters for this two-year project,” she said. “Everything else stayed in this building.”

There are currently 15 businesses hanging a shingle in the Green Garage, with room for another 15.

Shared table space rents for $50 a month, a desk for $125 a month, or rent a space for four-five people for $1,000 a month.

Private meeting rooms are available and people can work at the Imaginarium, a lounge upstairs with couches.

The businesses that operate out of the Green Garage are socially conscious and include photographers, website developers and healthy food providers. The following three businesses have Jewish influences.

Students Get Fit
Matthew Tugender, chief marketing officer and director of sales of Students Get Fit, says the advertising company “gives you the incentive to get up off your ass and get in the gym.”

SGF provides incentives to college students on college campuses to get fit, said Tugender, 25, of Walled Lake.

He calls it “moral advertising.”

Once the students sign up, their fitness is tracked through one-time login geo-tracking. “They walk in to an approved fitness center that is basically the school gym and work out at least 30 minutes to get credit for the workout.

“There are short- and long-term incentives for students, from daily prizes to weekly prizes to grand prizes,” he said. “Short-term you can win a $10 gift card for a salad, but long term, if you hit your fitness plateau, which is 50 days of working out per semester, you’re not only going to start looking better and eating better, but you’ll be eligible to win the bigger prizes, which will be the iPads, the televisions, the things you want really bad.

“We try to educate you on food choices, on how to work out and make it habit forming,” he said. “We just had a challenge that ended at University of Detroit Mercy (UDM) last week. We gave away an iPad as a grand prize, and smaller prizes were $10 gift certificates to Panera Bread in the area.”

More than 200 students are signed up at UDM, and more students are members in Syracuse and Buffalo. SGF donates 10 percent of profits to fight childhood obesity.

New Solutions Group
New Solutions Group is a consulting and advocacy business, said Steve Tobocman, managing partner and former state representative in the Michigan House, representing Michigan’s 12th State House district in Southwest Detroit from 2002 to 2008.

“Originally, I formed the limited liability company to afford me the opportunity to work on two critical issues I had developed expertise on while in the legislature: foreclosure and immigration,” said Tobocman, 42, of Detroit. “As I started circulating among my networks of folks who were making positive change in the nonprofit field, conversations evolved and I was offered several exciting and interesting opportunities.

“By forming New Solutions, it afforded me the opportunity to work with other talented, passionate, creative and insightful people to tackle some of Michigan’s most pressing problems.”

His earliest clients included the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the Community Economic Development Association of Michigan.

“Work for the Chamber focused on some grant funding from the New Economy Initiative for Southeastern Michigan (NEI), which is a partnership of 10 regional and national foundations that collectively committed $100 million to help transform our regional economy. NEI and the Chamber were interested in how immigration might be used as an economic development tool, helping to grow our economy and create jobs that would benefit the region.”

In 2011, New Solutions really began to grow, he said. “New projects emerged, including overseeing a strategic planning process for the Michigan Earned Income Credit coalition, a network of the state’s free tax assistance providers helping low-income and working people to file their taxes and claim the credits due to them.”

New Solutions now has five clients and four full-time staff members and numerous part-time employees.

“We were the Green Garage’s first, and remain its largest tenant. Our firm’s goals of designing creative and meaningful solutions to our city’s, state’s and country’s challenges align well with the sustainability mission of the Green Garage. We have greatly enjoyed our workspace and the camaraderie and spirit of innovation and positive change. There are always exciting and thoughtful people moving through and visiting the Green Garage.”

Fresh Corner Cafe
Noam Kimmelman would like to see healthy, fresh food in every small grocery store, gas station and bodega in Detroit. Fresh Corner Cafe, the company he formed through a University of Michigan course a couple of years ago, is planning to do just that.

Kimmelman, 25, originally from Boston, moved to Detroit and started the business in May 2010. He has earned a master’s degree in health management and policy from U-M, and lives a few blocks away from the Green Garage.

“The idea started out of a U-M social venture creation course that teaches students to develop a business model to address a social concern,” he said. “I pitched this idea about fresh food access in Detroit, and a team of six graduate students from business, engineering and public health students collaborated on this idea, and we concentrated on the close to 1,000 corner stores in the area.”

Fresh Corner Cafe, an L3C, a low-profit limited liability company, is currently found in 25 stores in Detroit, eight in the Midtown area. The rest are in northwest Detroit. They also have a catering menu of sandwich wraps, salads and fresh fruit.

“We partner with a restaurant in New Center called Lunchtime Detroit, and they produce our food,” he said. “We tell them what we want, what ingredients, and they make it and slap our label on it. We work with Peaches and Greens, a local nonprofit, and they cut our fruit for us.”

By year’s end, Fresh Corner Cafe will have its own kitchen, but Kimmelman said he would maintain the space at the Green Garage. “The collaboration possibilities are endless.”

Photos by Brett Mountain