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Mackinac: Detroit key to Michigan’s prosperity

Brenda Jones

Brenda Jones

By C. Kelly
The Michigan Citizen

Detroit is not only critical to Michigan’s growth, but also its prosperity. Policy changes and Detroit’s impending emergence from bankruptcy have positioned the city to lead Michigan forward, according to several speakers at this year’s annual Mackinac Policy Conference hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber.

“We have one Michigan and one Detroit,” said City Council President Brenda Jones who echoed the optimism and togetherness heard throughout the conference for Michigan’s largest city.

Mitch  Landrieu


New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu set the tone for the May 30 sessions when he discussed reinvesting in cities and how the success of cities like Detroit will create a path toward a better economy, environment and enable social mobility.

National prosperity is tied to vibrant urban centers — cities generate wealth. Ninety percent of the nation’s GDP is generated on three percent of its landmass. The city of Chicago produces more in economic outcome than 42 states, according to Vishaan Chakrabarti of SHoP Architects.

Vishaan Chakrabarti

Vishaan Chakrabarti

Yet, Chakrabarti says, policy has only contributed to urban sprawl, disinvestment and the economic and racial segregation of metropolitan Detroit. Government intervention created sprawl and it will be the government that must also correct it.

Chakrabarti, who worked for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, says the state must consciously redirect resources and dollars to help create a vibrant Detroit.

“We had dense cities in the early 1900s and we have systematically spread out our cities into what we affectionately call sprawl,” said Chakrabarti.

States heavily invest in roads over mass transit and federal intervention artificially lowers the price of gas. According to Chakrabarti, one of the largest tax subsidies is the mortgage interest rate deduction.

“We are creating a landscape that is reliant on cars,” said Chakrabarti. “We spend four times as much on roads as anything else.”

He says the density in urban areas is better for the environment and the economy and is the reason why Detroit is important to Michigan.

“If people want to live in the suburbs, that’s great but we shouldn’t pay them to do it. Take that money and invest it in the things we need including urban affordability.”

Education, opportunity and the future of Detroit were the focus of many of the sessions at the Mackinac policy conference. Detroit’s future, however, emerged as one of the main focuses of the conference.

DTE CEO Gerry Anderson said private sector and investor attitude toward the city is changing.

“There is a confidence that the area is changing and new capital will follow,” said Anderson who worked in Baltimore and Cleveland and saw turnaround in those cities.

“I am able to give tangible examples of how the city is moving.”

Anderson talked about seeing the “tundra of parking lots” when he first began working in Detroit, and says he is excited by the tremendous infrastructure investment underway for the new hockey stadium and other projects.

Rip  Rapson


Kresge Foundation CEO and President Rip Rapson talked about “successes” in Detroit that include the M-1 line and the riverfront.

“The most effective thing a foundation can do is signal to the market there is enduring value,” said Rapson who says investors want “a safe place to invest that can return long-term value.”

Unity and partnership is the new working environment for the corporate and foundation communities, and political leadership in Detroit.

“It’s truly a new day (in Detroit),” said Jones who stressed the spirit of “unity” operating between Lansing, The Detroit City Council and the mayor’s office. Jones said she recently “realized” Detroit has “great friends” in Lansing including House Speaker Jase Bolger and other Republicans.

“We all realize we are here for one reason, and that is to move Detroit forward,” said Jones.

This week, legislators passed the so-called grand bargain, a package of bills that delivers $195 million to Detroit and could help minimize pension cuts and spin the Detroit Institute of Arts into a private institution.

The grand bargain has been criticized for mandating state oversight of Detroit. State Sen. Coleman Young, D-Detroit, voted against all nine bills.

Anderson credited Detroit political leadership for working together and demanding accountability. As expert advisor to Detroit’s Lighting Authority, he says the project is progressing well and “the neighborhoods will feel it.”

Chakrabarti, who worked on the Barclays Center project in Brooklyn and will also work on Detroit’s former Hudson’s department store site with Dan Gilbert, added, “What happened to Brooklyn can happen to Detroit.”

He says Detroit could also benefit from families being pushed out of New York City, San Francisco and other places deemed unaffordable, but the city will have to invest in quality of life including creating good schools and parks.

Cities are also facing tension between municipal workers’ benefits and quality of life investment. Yet, cities must choose to prioritize quality of life over workers’ benefits, which will be improved over time, according to Chakrabarti.

Jones says in Detroit, “Municipal services and privatization are working hand and hand together.”

The Barclays Center, which does not offer any parking spaces, is also located in the core of gentrification in Brooklyn attracting the area’s highest rate of new residents from out of state according to Census data.

Jones says she tells residents, “Hold on, don’t sell your house, because you can’t get another one for the same price you paid now.”


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