Detroit’s Vision-ary: Heritage Optical’s Impact Beyond Eyewear

Since 1975, Heritage Optical has been illuminating Detroit’s visual landscape, both literally and metaphorically, by delivering exceptional eyewear services to the city. However, its narrative transcends eyeglasses; and includes the strategic mastery and leadership of its Founder, President, Chief Executive Officer and Board Chairman, George P. Barnes Jr.

Barnes comes from a family deeply rooted in hard work and determination, values that have guided him throughout his remarkable journey. The conception of the Heritage brand made history as Barnes became Michigan’s first African American dispensing optician to own and operate a full-service optical dispensary. Heritage is not merely an optical center; it’s a multifaceted institution that encompasses an optical center, a vision insurance provider that’s spread across 50 states, and a non-profit entity. Beyond offering stylish eyewear, Heritage ignited a possibility for aspiring entrepreneurs and created a hub for quality eye care in the heart of Detroit.

After an eye examination revealed the absence of Black doctors in his field, Barnes made the pivotal decision to embark on a career in optometry. This ignited passion for representation, top-notch service, and ongoing progress in the realm of eye care fuels Barnes and his devoted team to endure the challenges of time, continuously improving with each passing year.

Evolving from Vision to Reality

“I have to tell you what propelled me to go into business,” said Barnes. “I was passed over for a director position so that’s how I said it’s time for me to leave. And so that’s how heritage optical got started. We’ve been moving on ever since. I turned a no into a yes.”

At its inception, Heritage began as an optical center, offering exquisite eyewear services. However, George Barnes possessed a grander vision. He envisioned Heritage as a holistic hub of eye care, extending beyond frames and lenses. This led to the expansion of Heritage into a comprehensive vision insurance provider, setting a new standard in quality and coverage. Heritage’s evolution underscores its commitment to addressing the diverse needs of its community members.

Heritage Optical Center, Inc. has grown from its humble beginnings to encompass three Detroit locations – Chene Square Center, Livernois Avenue, and Campus Martius Center. These centers serve not only as optical dispensaries but also as hubs of economic growth, providing jobs and opportunities for local communities. Barnes’ commitment to revitalizing neighborhoods is evident through his participation in programs like Mayor Duggan’s Grow Detroit Young Talent initiative, which offers high school students work experience at his optical centers.

Empowerment Through Community Connection

Recognizing that a community’s strength lies in its solidarity, George Barnes and his team established Heritage Vision of Hope, a non-profit initiative that transcends the realm of eyewear. This program reflects their unwavering dedication to making a meaningful difference in the lives of those in need. Heritage Vision of Hope is more than just a philanthropic endeavor; it’s a beacon of hope that offers clarity and compassion to individuals who are less fortunate.

“The reason we started the nonprofit is because we’ve had kids that could not come in for eye exam. We’d put them in the book, and then they call in because they didn’t have transportation. Well, those are the ones that need it. When you think about it, our kids either can’t see or they can’t hear. So, we’re trying to take care of the seeing needs.”

Remaining true to their commitment to address visual needs, Heritage Vision of Hope initiated a pilot program at Cristo Rey High School taking vision screenings to the students. They’ve also collaborated with Detroit Public Schools and Hope Academies. Their next goal is to secure a van for the purpose of providing a mobile eye care solution, directly reaching those in need and bridging existing gaps in healthcare for communities in need.

Collaborative Ventures for Michigan’s Prosperity

Considering the significance of maintaining a steady influx of funds within Michigan’s thriving landscape, Barnes advocates for increased collaboration between companies and Heritage Insurance. With a client base that boasts esteemed names like Ford Motors, Stellantis, City of Detroit, and Wayne County, Heritage possesses a proven operational framework that guarantees a high-quality customer experience.

Having firmly established their ability to weather the trials of time on the service front, Heritage’s current focus revolves around maintaining a comprehensive ecosystem within the state. The objective is to encourage Michigan-based companies to partner with local insurance providers, fostering an environment where resources remain within the state rather than being outsourced elsewhere.

Barnes emphasizes, “Larger companies should look for disadvantaged companies so they can positively impact this economy. They should look for veteran owned companies. Work with a company that’s headquartered in Michigan so that you grow the economy.”

A Legacy Beyond Eyewear

Historically, the disappearance of Black insurance companies has aligned with the decline in Back wealth over the decades. It created an opportunity for wealth creation in the broader community. Robert Weems, distinguished professor of business at Wichita State University, said something unique to the insurance industry from the standpoint of profitability, is that there are more people alive paying premiums than there are people dying and companies having to pay death benefits. This creates a surplus which allows Black insurance providers the ability to disperse a lot of that capital back into the community in the forms of mortgage loans, business loans, and grant money for additional wealth-generating endeavors.

Heritage’s story is a narrative of growth, empowerment, and community impact, as Barnes’ has served as an ambassador to many of the opportunities Weems outlined. Heritage has a legacy that reflects the vision of a dreamer who dared to go beyond the ordinary. Today, Heritage stands as a powerful reminder that businesses can be catalysts for change, offering healthcare services and fostering unity within their communities. George Barnes’ wildest dreams have evolved into a visionary brand that leaves an indelible mark on Detroit and beyond.

The Heritage Brand consistently pursues innovation, and they are currently exploring additional avenues to enrich the experience through new technological advancements, maintaining their edge ahead of the curve.

Heritage’s journey is a testament to the power of dreams and the impact of compassionate entrepreneurship. As the family ran brand continues to evolve, it remains committed to George Barnes’ original vision of providing quality healthcare services and making a positive impact on the community. With staff members who have been integral to the vision for 20, 30, and 40 years, Mr. Barnes’ leadership, determination, and commitment to change have pioneered a distinctive role within Detroit’s healthcare sector, an influence that endures and uplifts.  Heritage’s legacy shines as a sign of hope, a symbol of unity, and a true visionary force that illuminates lives with purpose and passion.

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