Gary Sands is professor emeritus of urban planning at Wayne State University.
Since the City of Detroit emerged from bankruptcy in 2014, the popular narrative about Detroit has become more optimistic. Both the media and academic writers have found it easier to say nice things about Detroit. Businesses have moved into the city, housing is being built and property values are increasing. Both Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler will invest hundreds of millions to bring thousands of new jobs to Detroit.
But all of this recent development activity does not mean that Detroit has turned the corner on its road to recovery. Because most investors still look for substantial public subsidies for their Detroit projects, the city’s comeback remains fragile.
Moreover, some have questioned the extent to which these projects actually benefit Detroit residents. Do these new developments support the “two Detroits” narrative in which one Detroit is prosperous and white while the other is struggling and non-white?
This question can in part be answered by examining employment trends across Detroit’s neighborhoods. Data from the Census Bureau indicate that, between 2011 and 2016 (the latest date for which data are available), Detroit ZIP Codes recorded an increase of 31,000 jobs, 18,000 of them in the Downtown-Midtown core. This represents an increase of almost 19 percent in five years. The number of jobs increased in 20 of Detroit’s 26 ZIP Codes.
The picture is considerably different, however, when one looks at the other side of the coin, the number of Detroiters that are working. Just because a job is located in Detroit, it does not mean that a Detroit resident holds that job. In fact, over the same five-year period, the number of Detroit residents who had jobs declined by more than 4,800 (2 percent) according to American Community Survey data. Fewer than half of Detroit’s ZIP Codes recorded gains in the number of employed residents.
These data suggest that concerns over who will benefit from economic development initiatives are largely justified. The robust job growth in recent years has largely bypassed Detroit residents. Suburbanites have been the primary beneficiaries.
If the economic development incentives of the past few years have resulted in only limited new job opportunities for Detroit residents, what can the City of Detroit do to address this issue? In the short run, economic development initiatives should prioritize attracting jobs for which Detroit residents can qualify. Development agreements should Include hiring quotas for city residents in both construction and permanent jobs. Job training programs should be expanded to address skills gaps. Public transportation improvements are needed to improve access to suburban job opportunities. Providing quality public education is a critical long-term objective.
There is clearly no easy answer. Effective strategies are difficult and unlikely to show immediate results. Nevertheless, it seems clear that economic development efforts need to be more targeted. Trickle down economic development strategies are not sufficient to address the needs of all Detroiters.