Inchvesting In Detroit: A Virtual Realty For $1, anyone can own a square-inch corner of this Rust Belt town. Real estate developer Jerry Paffendorf has "inchvestors" from as far away as Australia. It operates like a SimCity computer game, except buyers get real land. Some locals hate the idea.

Inchvesting In Detroit: A Virtual Realty

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Now to another vision for Detroit: For $1 you can own a piece of the Motor City. It'll be a small piece: one square inch to be exact. But your investment in that micro plot of land also gives you passage into an online community that's coming up with bigger ideas for the city.

Sarah Hulett of Michigan Radio explains.

SARAH HULETT: Jerry Paffendorf is not your typical real estate developer. But then the people lining up to buy into his project are not quite your typical investors.

Mr. JERRY PAFFENDORF (Real Estate Developer): Inchvestors, first off. We call them inchvestors.

HULETT: Paffendorf called his project Loveland, and it's a hybrid: part virtual and part physical.

Mr. PAFFENDORF: It's almost like, what we want to do is we want to build this wild, you know, social network of people that's, like, literally built out of the dirt and, like, the ground.

(Soundbite of machinery)

HULETT: This is the physical part: A vacant lot with a view of a burned-out garage and several other empty parcels.

Mr. PAFFENDORF: We are at the intersection of Vernor Highway and Holcomb Street on the east side of Detroit. And we are walking over to the first property that I purchased through the Loveland project.

HULETT: Paffendorf bought this property at auction for $500. Then he put 10,000 square inches up for sale, and people from all over the planet began snapping them up. They've now all been sold to nearly 600 people. The deeds Paffendorf mails out are not legally valid, so the people who buy inches won't get to vote in Detroit or have to pay taxes.

Some inchvestors have sentimental ties to the city and just liked the idea of having a physical stake in the place where they, or their parents or grandparents grew up. But a lot of them are attracted by the project's virtual possibilities and say Loveland is sort of like the popular SimCity or Farmville online games, but with real land.

Rita King is the biggest landholder in Loveland, with 1,000 inches. She works for IBM, and she's an entrepreneur with a firm that helps companies use social media and virtual worlds. King is excited about the project's potential to help the real city in which Loveland sits.

Ms. RITA KING (Entrepreneur, IBM): Because Loveland is physically located in Detroit, it takes those 500 inchvestors and it ties us to Detroit, which means that the development of Detroit is now of critical importance to hundreds of people who don't live or work in Detroit. And now, I for one, am starting to look very, very closely at Detroit and how can I help Detroit level up along with Loveland in our small way.

HULETT: Leveling up is a phrase from the world of video games. It's what happens when the character you're playing makes it to the next level in the game. And for many it's an apt description of what Detroit needs to do. King says she expects the online component of Loveland to include interactive maps and stories. And proceeds from the project's next phase are expected to be used to fund grants for nonprofit groups around Detroit. But for all the excitement about the possibilities Loveland holds with high-minded techno-futurists, the project is also fodder for derision and mockery in some quarters.

On an online discussion board called Detroit YES, one commentator said it sounded like a pyramid scheme without the pyramid. Bill Johnson is one of those who's criticized the project. Sitting at a coffeehouse in front of his laptop, he says it smacks of exploitation.

Mr. BILL JOHNSON: You know, in places outside of Detroit, we've got a bad reputation as sort of a pitiful, worthless place. And this guy's preying on that. That's what he's really peddling.

HULETT: But Loveland creator Jerry Paffendorf says Detroit is a place of opportunity and creativity. And he shares an optimism about the city and his project with Ricki Collins. Collins is nine years old and lives next door to the empty lot that Paffendorf bought. She lives in the only house left on this block.

Ms. RICKI COLLINS: I want people to, like, remember this place. Remember it. And I want people to come over so we can get to know each other, learn new things about each other.

HULETT: It's not clear how many of the people who've bought inches in Loveland will actually visit their tiny plots in person. But Rita King says she intends to make the trek from New York City. She also plans to install a mailbox so people can send things to and from the site.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Hulett in Detroit.

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