Much has been written about Detroit’s challenges, which are epic and often compared to the fall of the Roman Empire. Our great city was once nearly 2.0 million people strong and one of the wealthiest in the country. Today we total 700,000, the poverty rate is nearly 36% and the unemployment rate is 23%, which would probably be much higher if the chronic unemployed were included. Not to mention that the City of Detroit recently emerged from bankruptcy – the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in history.
Yet, despite the grim numbers and dismal history, Detroit will soon become a model for other cities and will one day in the near future be one of America’s most vibrant and thriving cities again. You may be thinking “What?” or maybe even “WTF?”, but it is happening. Detroit is booming and soon Detroit will be the model for other cities to replicate.
Over my lifetime, we have had a number of almost comebacks that unfortunately fizzled. We heard things like “the Motor City is revving up” or “Motown is on the road to recovery”. But, talk of a rebound always weaved-in a reference to the auto industry. This time, however, we are not making similar references and the lack of auto-related catch phrases is more than a subtle nuance. We are no longer living in the past and not living with the bondage of our history will take us to the future.
Too many times over the last four decades we have clung to the past of our auto heritage. Yes we are still the automotive capital of the world, but as a region we continued to live in the past. Wishing for yesteryear didn’t lead to anything. Waxing poetically about the past may have been an enjoyable pastime, but wallowing in nostalgia didn’t do us any good. Living in the past didn’t lead to economic growth or development. Frankly our region’s rearview mirror perspective held us back.
Learning from our past and looking to the future is the key to success. And we are embracing it. In the past we tried to buy jobs with the Detroit city government doling out money like we hand out candy on Halloween. Remember Poletown? No more of these fiascos. This time it’s different.
Detroit Future City published a strategic framework that is a blueprint to take us to the future. Writing a strategic plan is not novel for a city, but what Detroit Future City did was unprecedented. Detroit Future City Strategic Framework was the culmination of 163,000 “interactions” and a multi-year planning process and this stellar work product didn’t come without symphony-like cooperation between public and private officials and all stakeholders.
Cooperation and city-wide support is good, but to take Detroit to the future, leadership is paramount. And we have strong leadership. We have an entrepreneurial mayor that is doing all he can to fix city services and lure residents and businesses to the city. Mayor Mike Duggan doesn’t seem to be caught-up in politics or have an agenda. He is more Eminem than Motown and he understands a simple maxim: without residents, there is no city. Too many times in the past we had city leadership that was like the aging movie star: longing for yesteryear and trying
to stay relevant while ignoring reality. Not Mayor Duggan.
It’s not just city leadership; the private sector is also leading the way. Providing public transportation has traditionally been the purview of city government. Not in the D. Roger Penske led a group of business leaders to privately fund a $1.0 billion rail line currently under construction in Detroit. Yes, you read that right. How often do you hear of a privately funded rail line? Unprecedented and somewhat ironic in the Motor City. The M-1 rail line will connect the New Center area and Downtown to create an economic impact of $3.0 billion, including 10,000 housing units and 5.0 million sf of commercial space. As a city we have lacked meaningful public transportation, which has been in part because of our auto-centric culture. Now we are looking forward to tomorrow. Future cities are not going to be auto-reliant and Detroit is leading the way.
Signs of the future are everywhere. The farmers’ market is becoming a staple of many cities and there are a number of fine farmers’ markets across the country. Many are steeped in tradition and simply offer a way for farmers to sell their wares. Not Detroit’s. Calling Eastern Market a farmers’ market is like calling Tesla just another car company. Eastern Market, which dates to 1891, is catalyst to a growing food economy, which could become Detroit’s “next big industry”, according to Joel Makower in his recently published article on www.greenbiz.com. In the GreenBiz article, Dan Carmody, president of Eastern Market Corporation, describes Eastern Market as “the most inclusive, resilient food hub in America.” Eastern Market is focused on the future of food, including nutrition education, food access and economic development.
The historic model for building an urban sports arena is to go to toughest part of town where real estate prices are low and assemble a large tract and build an arena. The plan, or more aptly put the hope, is that the arena spurs economic development. The reality is the arena-as-an-island model leads to a little boost but mostly to unrealized ambitions.
Back to the future. The new Detroit Red Wings arena will be part of a $600 million mixed-use development that will include five neighborhoods with retail, office, hotel and residential, leading to nearly $2.0 billion in economic impact. Being developed by Olympia Development, District Detroit and its five neighborhoods will be the bridge between the red-hot areas of Midtown and Downtown.
What we are seeing in Detroit is the real renaissance. Why? Our history is not holding us back. Instead, we are learning from our history and embracing the future to become a vibrant future city and a model for cities across the world.