Coming Soon: Coding Lab, Co-Working Space, and More in Highland Park

Highland Park, for those who don’t know, is a separate city within Detroit’s borders—along with Hamtramck, it’s actually one of two sovereign cities inside Detroit—and for a long time, it’s been considered by many to be Detroit’s shabbier, financially ruined cousin.

Once an upscale enclave that was home to Henry Ford’s first assembly line and, later, Chrysler’s headquarters, Highland Park began its decline in the 1950s after Ford wound down operations there. By the time Chrysler left in 1991, it was a shadow of its former self. To give you an idea of how broke and desolate Highland Park is, the city removed two-thirds of its streetlights in 2011 because it couldn’t afford to pay for electricity. (Not switched them off, but actually pulled the lights off their posts. City leaders advised residents to keep their porch lights on instead.) In other words, nobody is writing triumphant articles about the bustling new startup scene in Highland Park.

However, that may soon change. A company called Modern Tribe Communications has purchased a former elementary school at 181 E. Buena Vista with plans to turn it into eco-friendly co-working space and coding lab called Parker Village, where it hopes to champion careers in technology, renewable energy, and media to local residents, and help budding as well as seasoned entrepreneurs pursue their dreams.

Juan Shannon, Modern Tribe’s CEO, said he plans to install wind turbines and solar-powered lights at the 42,000-square-foot space. Eventually, he said, Parker Village will also include a broadcast division, urban farm, fulfillment center, boutique, restaurant, and a printing and graphics shop. Phase one of the development is already underway, and Shannon said an electric vehicle charging station from Texas-based Revitalize Charging Solutions will be installed this spring.

“As a lifelong Highland Parker, it was always my desire to come back and address the problems the city is facing,” Shannon said. “Instead of running for public office, I chose to address it on the entrepreneurial level instead. I needed space to grow the business and I wanted to include things the city needed, like a place where you can make copies, an event space, a STEM lab, or an urban farm.”

Shannon said he approached Redford, MI’s Cyber Education Center to install and maintain Parker Village’s IT infrastructure and come up with a curriculum for STEM and coding classes. The goal is to train teens, veterans, women, people transitioning out of incarceration, and other interested parties in technological skills and eventually farm them out as interns to local companies. Shannon has already snagged a grant from a nonprofit that provides emergency housing to survivors of domestic abuse to develop programming that could be utilized by its clients.

Shannon hasn’t figured out exactly how the fee structure will work for the range of offerings he has planned for Parker Village, and he said he’ll pursue crowdfunding and additional grants to help get the project off the ground. Shannon also recently hired Gerrajh Surles, a former engineer with Giffels­Webster who once led Highland Park’s public works department, to lead Parker Village’s development efforts.

“We’re going to take it in phases,” Shannon said. “The goal is to get the first part of redevelopment finished by summer. Even though it sat empty for 20 years, it’s all poured concrete, so the bones of the building are in excellent shape.” A power pack from Tesla will anchor Parker Village’s utility room, he added, and will be used to store energy generated by the property’s wind and solar installations.

One of the more interesting things Shannon has planned for Parker Village is a fulfillment center, a sort of communal warehouse space that can be used by smaller neighborhood retailers to store inventory they want to sell online. Modern Tribe, which has been operating since 1997 and is perhaps best known for its involvement in the local hip-hop scene, also has a number of film and music releases in production.

“It’s a massive undertaking,” Shannon admitted. “I wake up and ask myself, ‘Am I crazy?’ But I’m definitely excited to be the vessel.”

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