New nonprofit seeks to open hostel in Detroit

New nonprofit seeks to open hostel in Detroit
By Shawn Wright | December 16, 2010
Whether they come from the suburbs or overseas, Emily Doerr is hoping younger generations will find her new Hostel Detroit to be a gateway to the city she loves.

Hostel Detroit, set to open in April, will be the first of its kind in the city since the mid-1990s. The 4,000-square-foot building in Corktown will have nine bedrooms, with a total of 20 bunk beds and four double beds. On any given night, about 26 people will be able to stay.

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"The only way to get people here is to have them stay here and see what Detroit is like," Doerr said. "That is how you get people moving here — by plugging them in for a weekend visit."

Doerr, 25, said two types of people will take advantage of Hostel Detroit: those who want to come for a weekend, such as college students, and those who want to stay through the week.

Doerr hopes Hostel Detroit will be a good gathering place for creative people from different backgrounds to meet and interact. The prices are also right for the average college student or European backpacker: $25 a night for a single bed and $45 for a double.

"It's a two-part thing," Doerr said. "A: They know it's a community link. B: People are just interested because it will be $25. You don't want to blow all your money at a hotel, if you can have a safe, clean place to stay."

Attracting visitors from overseas might not be as much of a long shot as it may sound: Detroit's electronic music festival draws young tourists from Europe and Japan every year.

Ernie Zachary, president of Detroit-based developer Zachary & Associates, said the hostel has potential. Zachary, a partner in the Sugar Hill Art District project in Midtown, said Detroit already attracts young, "couch-surfing" creative types. He sees people coming in from Europe and elsewhere in the states because they like the unusual experience Detroit has to offer.

"We offer a different urban experience," Zachary said.

Hostel Detroit is a nonprofit and has a board of directors with 12 members. The organization has submitted its application to the Internal Revenue Service to receive 501(C)(3) status. Doerr expects to be approved by February.

Photo credit: Kenny Corbin
Hostel Detroit in Corktown is on track to open in April.

Doerr leased the building in November from Jerry Esters, who owns a few other properties in North Corktown. The rent is $2,000 a month.

So far, all the money to fund the nonprofit venture has been out of Doerr's pocket.

"I'd love to look at other, bigger sources of funding," Doerr said. "As of right now, it's the bank of Emily Doerr. But it's all worth it."

At least $1,200 has been donated in the past month. She hopes to raise between $10,000 and $15,000.

"I know it doesn't sound like a lot of money," Doerr said. "(But) that would help us just ensure that our doors will open in April."

Larry Mongo, owner of Café D'Mongo's Speakeasy in downtown Detroit, recently told Doerr that he will commit $1,000 to Hostel Detroit.

Doerr, who has done volunteer work with several Detroit organizations and previously worked as grants manager for the nonprofit Wayne Metropolitan Community Action Agency, has sought advice from many different groups and organizations. In particular, she talked with Sean Harrington, owner of the Town Pump Tavern, who closed Detroit's last hostel in 1995.

"He's told me all sorts of crazy stuff from when he ran one," Doerr said. "In the hostel world, there are these parent organizations. … American Youth Hostels is one of them. The only reason Sean closed was because they increased their requirement (fee) to be a franchise."

Hostel Detroit will be an independent hostel, Doerr said, and the organizersare finding the right liability insurance policy.

"There's about four or five liability insurance quotes we're looking at right now," Doerr said. "We'll be getting $500,000 in liability insurance."

Doerr has had some help from Ron and Patty Cooley, parents of Slows Bar BQ owners Ryan and Phillip Cooley, two of Corktown's more famous residents.

Ron and Patty Cooley walked through the future hostel, offering advice on little things Doerr can do. The Cooleys have experience renovating properties, going back to their days running the family business, O'Connor Realty Inc.

"Patty Cooley came in and gave marching orders," Doerr joked. "They are just really nice and smart, and I can see why the Cooleys are so successful."

A new door that will connect a lobby check-in area to the rest of the hostel was one of Patty Cooley's suggestions.

The sense of community and partnership with local business owners is one of the most important things the hostel has going for it, said board member Ashley Woods, who is also a friend of Doerr's.

"The hostel is a great, great thing," said Jeff DeBruyn, president of the Corktown Residents' Council. "I've talked to people in the area who are happy about it."

Doerr and Woods said they want as many local businesses as possible to be involved. They are talking about creating a Hostel Detroit card in conjunction with other local businesses.

"It'd be a 'show your Hostel Detroit card and get discounts' at participating places," Woods said.

Woods said the hostel plans to enlist at least 30 volunteers as tour guides and to invite people to Detroit.

In addition to donations of time, energy and knowledge, the hostel needs everything from money and household items to furniture by the time it opens.

Helping with some of the furniture needs will be Mark Wilson, furniture designer and Lawrence Technological University adjunct professor. Doerr recruited Wilson and his furniture design class to construct beds and tables.

"It's really been great to see how many people have been donating furniture," Woods said. "It's been more than we expected. We have 25 percent of what we need. We're looking for everything but televisions and mattresses, because we want those new."

And there might be a way Hostel Detroit will get new mattresses for free. Doerr said she is working with Art Van Furniture Inc., in the hopes that the furniture giant will donate 20 mattresses.