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Competent or incapable?

Week 23 of the occupation

By Shea Howell
Special to the Michigan Citizen

Kevyn Orr

Kevyn Orr

The new watch-words coming from Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr are “competence” and “efficiency.” We are being told he is busy “streamlining” city government. He is eliminating cumbersome bureaucracies. His target this week is City Planning and Development.

People who care about the future of the city need to resist this effort to destroy democratic oversight in the name of competence and efficiency.  We are getting neither. This is nothing more than a streamlined effort to funnel millions of dollars of public money into private hands.

The framework for moving development deals behind closed doors began with the much contested Consent Agreement. In this Agreement, the Bing administration consented to transferring most of the planning and development functions to the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC). The DEGC, headed by George Jackson, is a quasi public body.

It is hailed by the business community for its efficiency, competence and effectiveness.  Reporter John Gallagher of the Detroit Free Press noted recently, “The DEGC and Jackson have been widely praised by the business community for negotiating such deals as the renovation of the Book Cadillac Hotel and recently announced arena and entertainment district for the Red Wings.”

These two deals, singled out as examples of the competence and effectiveness of the DEGC, have come under fire for their flawed, convoluted negotiation strategies. The only clear result is that that scarce public money is finding its way into the pockets of a few wealthy individuals.

The Book Cadillac owners appear to have made no payments to the city for public money given to aid their development. The parent organization says the process of repayment is too complicated to discuss.

Meanwhile, national news media reacted with startled outrage at yet another stadium deal in Detroit.  Just six days after filing for bankruptcy, the state’s economic development authority gave a preliminary go ahead to sell $450 million in tax exempt bonds to finance a 650,000 square foot arena for the Red Wings. The public will be responsible for three fifths of the total cost.

Further, the public money made available to Red Wings owner and downtown developer Mike Illitch comes from a move by the right-wing Republican legislature last December. They revived the ability of the development authority to take school-tax revenue. Had the legislature not acted, the money would have reverted to public schools. Bloomberg News captured the tone of this deal in the headline “Detroit Billionaires Get Hockey Arena as Bankrupt City Suffers.”

We have all heard the tired justifications for this use of public money.  It will create jobs, stimulate business and be the catalyst for the rebirth of our city. We’ve been hearing them since 1997 when then right-wing Republican governor John Engler told us the new Tiger Stadium — Comerica Park — would “symbolize our renewal.” We heard them when William Clay Ford said in 1999 that the new football stadium — Ford Field — would “showcase the city’s turn around.” Right-wing Governor Rick Snyder is now telling us the same thing.

Our own experience, as well as strong academic evidence, shows that such strategies do not work.

These are development deals we are told reflect the competence and efficiency of the DEGC.

The truth is that the business interests behind the DEGC have a clear track record. They propose a quick fix to problems they helped create, then take public money to line their own pockets, leaving us with greater devastation.

The conflicts in our city today are about the kind of people we are, the kind of values we represent, and the kind of place we want to become. Will we continue to push people out of their homes in order to try yet another quick-fix development scheme? Will we continue to allow public money to be used for private gain?

These questions belong in the public sphere. They should be debated and discussed openly everywhere. Development Authorities at the state and city level are incapable of providing democratic decision-making.

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