Mike Duggan and the selling of Detroit 2014

For much of his public life, Mike Duggan has promised results by setting targets – and hitting them.

As Wayne County prosecutor, he went after deadbeat dads, crappy landlords, felons big and small – even graffiti artists.

After leaving the prosecutor’s office to lead the struggling Detroit Medical Center, he called for better service in a hospital system awash in trouble: He said every patient would see a doctor within 29 minutes of showing up in the emergency room, then touted the guarantee on billboards across the city.

"He's a guy who's never been afraid to put numbers on his own performance, to put expectations upon himself," said Richard Cole, a retired Michigan State University marketing professor who was Duggan’s chief administrator at the DMC when Duggan took over in 2004.

So it should have surprised no one when he became Detroit mayor in January that Duggan, leader of a city still losing as many as 10,000 people a year, would boldly ask skittish Detroit residents to hold off on any plans to move, begging for six months to alter the descent of the city.

What some may have scoffed at as a marketing stunt – how do you begin to solve Detroit’s problems in six months? – was an expected response from a metrics man. More than marketing, it was a way to force a solution.

“I think he’s been very successful in marketing himself, and I don’t mean that in a negative way,” said Michael Bernacchi, a marketing professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. “It’s as good as it gets.”

In recent weeks Duggan has announced positive figures to prove his success: he’d put more buses on the streets, accelerated the removal of blight in a blighted city and began to replace tens of thousands of non-working street lights.

For Cole, the changes Duggan made at the DMC were real – and he suspects they will be in Detroit too.

"He will deliver,” he said. “He will do what he says he will do."

Data hard to come by

But for all of the mayor’s numbers, his office is the one reporting them, making them difficult to verify. For instance, the city used to release the number of buses that were pulled off the street every day, and often there were just 150 buses traveling the city’s streets. That number is no longer available – at the same time, the city says there are roughly 30 percent more buses on the roads each day.

And the city is saying emergency medical response time is down by a third, again a number difficult to corroborate.

But so far, critics have been few. In the neighborhoods, leaders are seeing a more responsive City Hall. At the bus stops, people say a lack of buses and long waits still exist but are getting better.

“I think that’s bold to put it on the line,” said Eric Foster, a political consultant who helped run the mayoral campaign of Fred Durhal Jr., one of Duggan’s mayoral challengers last year.

Duggan himself isn’t taking a victory lap yet. He said at a conference recently that his grade should be “incomplete.”

The mayor was not made available for an interview for this report. But in the past he has outlined how he has tackled new tasks. That he would immediately lay down a marker on three of Detroit’s biggest problems – lights, blight and buses – was almost predictable.

"In any turnaround situation, you have to deliver an early big win. That's how you ultimately get people's confidence in you," he said in a wide-ranging interview with The Detroit News in 2007.

In his leadership at the DMC, the early win centered around the emergency room. A competing hospital was doing it in 30 minutes and Duggan wanted to do it better.

It wasn’t easy, Cole said, and there was pushback internally. "I know there were an awful lot of people who didn't think it could be done," he said.

But Duggan demanded a fix. It triggered a top-to-bottom restructuring of the hospital, from admissions to discharge, from cleaning to food service. It looked like a simple fix – 29 minutes or less – but it required massive change that benefited all patients and the hospital system, Cole said.

What Duggan has done in his first half-year as mayor is applauded by those on the ground – and has others hopeful that his attention to detail won’t wane. He has begun streamlining a bloated City Hall and has attacked problems that are within his control. (Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr retains control over the police and other levers of city power, for now.)

People have noticed more buses, some are benefitting from repaired streetlights and several neighborhoods have felt the rumble of home and building demolitions.

“In the community, there is a sense of pride and hope again,” said Linda Smith, executive director of U-SNAP-BAC, an east side community development organization.

Banking on population

Duggan himself has said his administration should ultimately be judged on a number which his office cannot report nor control: The city’s population. Duggan has said he won’t have done his job if the city doesn’t start growing again.

It might be the most dangerous number Duggan has ever gambled on: After losing nearly a quarter-million people in the last decade – the biggest percentage loss ever and the largest population loss since the 1980s – the city that once boasted 1.8 million now has fewer than 700,000 residents. Between 2011 and 2012, it lost an estimated 10,000 people.

What might look crazy – trying to alter a deeply entrenched demographic and migratory trend – might not be. To Kurt Metzger, a longtime area demographer, Duggan might be making an astute gamble.

“There is a possibility that Duggan has come in at a very opportune time for the population of Detroit,” Metzger said. “I think it’s coming to a point where (the population decline) is indeed bottoming out.”

Rents and housing costs are rising in the suburbs, making it more expensive to move out of the city. And rising rents in parts of Detroit indicate demand is rising as well.

But hitting the bottom and moving from it are two different things. To grow, people will have to embrace Duggan’s Detroit.

“I don’t have people now saying they’re leaving,” said U-SNAP-BAC’s Smith. “It’s more about thinking how they can stay.”

By asking to be judged by the city’s population, Duggan has produced the most simple of goals. UD-Mercy’s Bernacchi said Duggan’s use of metrics should be applauded. But with this one, there is danger.

“The simplicity is both it’s genius… but also a potential major pitfall,” he said. “Because nothing is that simple.”

Chad Rochkind is executive director of Urban Social Assembly, a nonprofit looking to make Detroit the capital of “social innovation” – ideas that advance the city and create cultural connections. Rochkind is bullish on the city and says he knows people across the country and globe are watching. Many, he said, would consider a move to the city.

“Their eye is on Detroit,” Rochkind said. “They want to see what we make of the moment.”

At the moment, Duggan is staying focused. He said he hopes to add dozens of new buses and knock down thousands of more blighted homes and repair thousands more street lights and bring thousands of people back into the city.

That’s a lot of numbers. But if he does it, he’ll be branded as a success. And so, perhaps, will the city.

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, and the Ford Foundation.

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John S.
Thu, 06/26/2014 - 9:56am
The city/state will need to enact policies that make the city more affordable for the middle class residents. The millage is far above the Wayne county average, properties are over-assessed, property insurance is high, auto insurance is high, there's a resident income tax, there's the cost of extra security measures, and there's the cost of tuition to send children to non-public schools. It would also help if financial and other incentives were offered so that city workers and other residents don't move out of the city when they retire and take their pension wealth with them.
Ken McFarlane
Thu, 06/26/2014 - 10:23am
I agree with John S. Many of these things won't change until tax paying businesses come to the city.
Fri, 06/27/2014 - 12:31pm
But at the same time guys. In order for you to bring in businesses they have to see a way to be profitable. And the way to do that is by making the city better and bringing in working class people to the city to live.
Sun, 06/29/2014 - 12:27am
Unfortunately, the buses on the busiest route that Dave Bing improved are no longer there. The two busiest routes are once again very slow.