Finding common ground with Detroit

There is no simple solution to bringing back Detroit or other cities.

There’s also no question the 9-bill package allocating about $195 million in state funds for Detroit, championed by Gov. Rick Snyder, passed the Michigan House on May 22 and the Michigan Senate last week, was a deal breaker as to whether Detroit could move forward.

More are discovering while there are some regional differences across the state, there are many similarities not only in problems, but possible solutions. The “to-do” lists being developed by regional community leaders to work on these issues in Detroit and other parts of the state are not much different.

The difference from now and four years ago, the three-day Detroit Chamber event recently held on Mackinac Island now has a growing number of outside participants and speakers addressing shared concerns that need to be addressed statewide, not just in Detroit – education, environment and parks, health care, transportation and roads to poverty, crime, the economy and jobs.

Four years ago, something changed at the Grand Hotel event. The Detroit Chamber got serious and told its membership the conference was changing. I suspect this came in large part with the appearance of its then new president and CEO, Sandy Baruah.

There would still be fun and cocktails, but it was announced the program would be replaced with serious state and national presenters and sessions, hour after hour. This included speakers like University of Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman, Gallup CEO Jim Clifton, and author Malcolm Gladwell.

Like those at the Mackinac conference talking about Detroit’s future, there appears to be more guarded optimism among Michiganians in general, with all wanting better quality of life.

You now see more West Michigan business leaders like Doug DeVos, president of Amway; Sam Cummings, Grand Rapids real estate development expert; Rick Baker, Grand Rapids Area Chamber president and CEO; Mark Murray, president of Meijer, Inc. and former president of Grand Valley State University; and Upper Peninsula leaders like Amy Clickner of Marquette-based Lake Superior Community Partnership.

Baruah credits the expanding statewide circle coming from the Detroit chamber involving more people from other parts of the state in the conference, even in early planning. While partially true, others see the policy conference as a chance to guard the hen house. As one western Michigan banker put it, “We didn’t used to participate until four or five years ago, after we realized Detroiters were meeting with our elected state and federal representatives just before budget time and by the time we caught up with them, the deals had been made.”

Like those at the Mackinac conference talking about the future of Detroit, there appears to be more guarded optimism, with all wanting better quality of life.

Others, like DeVos, see not much difference between the policy agendas set in Detroit than those being developed at the West Michigan Policy Forum Conference being planned for September 28-29 at the Amway Grand Plaza in Grand Rapids. Planned by West Michigan business and community leaders, the conference assembles every other year since 2008 to establish its policy agenda and unified vision, much like Detroit. West Michigan’s agenda also includes education, health care, labor, transportation/infrastructure and effective government.

Many from my Baby Boomer generation remember Detroit before the 1967 riots, with streets lined with beautiful homes and vibrant businesses. They recall the neighboring downtown Sanders Confectionary with its chocolates and ice cream sodas (one of the first stores to open Sundays), Tiger Stadium (then Briggs), as well the 982-acre Belle Isle along the Detroit River with its amazing aquarium, conservatory and zoo, gardens and other park lands.

Now some of the area is slowly turning around, with a new downtown entertainment and sports center, as well as a revitalized Fox Theatre, Detroit Opera House, Orchestra Hall and Max M. Fisher Music Center for jazz and chamber music, Comerica Park and Ford Field.

The “to-do” lists to work on these issues in Detroit and outstate Michigan are very similar to Southeastern and West Michigan. More are beginning to discover while there are some regional differences, there are a lot of similarities not only in problems, but possible solutions.

Like at the Mackinac Conference talking about the future Detroit, there appears be guarded optimism and all wanting better quality of life. The Center for Michigan’s 2014 Community Conversations found significant percentages of participants all over the state believe the state is at least a slightly better place to live and work than it was four years ago.

Surprising to me, after just moderating 12 community conversations across northern lower Michigan this fall and winter, was that there were not only people wanting to eliminate poverty, but now making connections to the importance of revitalizing cities like Detroit, to remove the financial stress that affects the entire state. They say reducing poverty, unemployment and crime rates and improving the economy go hand in hand statewide.

Quite frankly I was shocked, after living and working as a journalist, newspaper editor and publisher Up North for some 42 years now. Northern residents are not known for supporting Detroit.

At the conference, newly elected Mayor Mike Duggan presented his housing demolition program to improve core Detroit neighborhoods by removing abandoned homes, improving city busing, neighbor parks and restoring street lighting – one neighborhood at a time.

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Tue, 06/10/2014 - 12:28pm
Great article Ken! I think you did a fantastic job capturing the event and mood of Michiganders.
sam melvin
Tue, 06/10/2014 - 7:13pm
Detroit public school is auction OFF AIRPLANS and there parts , well where are they 350 HARLEYS Graet school for children learing to ride and fly! are the are being auction off also.