Get real. Detroit wasn’t ready for Amazon. So don’t blame transit.

Bill Johnson is retired director of administration for the Wayne County Commission and a former columnist for The Detroit News.

Amazon didn’t provide an explanation why Detroit wasn’t among the 20 final cities selected for its second headquarters. That didn’t stop regional leaders from advancing the idea that inadequate mass transit and a talent gap caused Detroit to come up short.

However, the perspective of Quicken Loans founder and chairman Dan Gilbert’s is closer to reality. He helped lead efforts to bring the internet giant to Detroit and urged a 60-plus member bid committee not to accept “conventional belief” the city fell short because of a talent void and transportation challenges.

Related: As mass transit talks slow, will Wayne, Washtenaw counties go it alone?

“Old, negative reputations do not die easily,” Gilbert wrote in an open letter published online. “I believe this is the single largest obstacle that we face. The elephant in the room is the nasty reputation associated with the post-bankruptcy city’s 50-plus years of decline.”

Gilbert’s response shows he understands that Detroit’s image problem can’t be reversed by unabashed boosterism alone. Conversely, the committee’s pious rhetoric is outrageous – an insult to Detroiters. If comprehensive regional mass transit were essential to progress in the region, policymakers would have made it a reality 50 years ago.

Indeed, the “transit” distraction serves to divert attention from an uncomfortable reality: City and regional planners have yet to acknowledge that Detroit’s negatives are not exaggerated fabrications. To suggest the city is on par, or no worse, than any of its competitors is disingenuous. Detroit will be ready for prime time developments when the city can attract them on the merits.

The shell of a once great city is still there. Today, though, the growth areas are unemployment, deficient education, poverty, blight and abandonment – all byproducts of a city under siege.

Factor in the lack of regard for life or property, for self-improvement and the near complete acceptance of communal depravity as a way of life, and Detroit’s despair is overwhelming.

MORE COVERAGE: Amazon to Michigan: Fix your schools!

The reasons behind Detroit’s “bad” national reputation aren’t as important as changing the reality. The city can be an engine of economic growth and social vitality again with a stronger focus on rebuilding the city’s human infrastructure. When institutions such as the family, schools, churches, social and civic organizations are no longer capable of sustaining civility and decency, that breakdown is reflected in social chaos and a business famine. New, middle-and-business class residents must see the promise of the city before they’ll move in.

City government has yet to reveal a comprehensive business/development strategy that offers people and communities the opportunities they need to benefit from future sources of prosperity.

MORE COVERAGE: Demand for Michigan workers is very high, but many have given up looking

There’s talk, but no concentrated activity to accommodate struggling neighborhoods.

In fairness, there are islands of hope, primarily inspired by Gilbert’s investments. But the fabric of Detroit’s recovery still hangs by a thread.

Only wishful thinkers should have been surprised that the Motor City didn’t make the Amazon cut. What is inexplicable is that promoters believed Detroit was ready for such a big-ticket development with so much historical baggage in tow.


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Tue, 02/06/2018 - 10:13am

In part, the lack of inadequate mass transit was one of the reasons given. The link was even in the article, "He [Sandy Baruah, Detroit Regional Chamber] said his read of Sullivan's [Amazon employee,public policy] response was that Amazon was concerned about the region's mass transportation system and its ability to attract talent in a sustainable, long-term way." However, yes, Detroit has an image problem as well. There are three problems I have read about; transit, talent, and image.

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 2:33pm

Yes you read it's about "transit, talent, and image" but did this come from Amazon or just folks pushing their agenda? Sure, they didn't come here but it's probably for a lot of reasons, from Detroit's reputation, to climate, to awkward logistical reasons and a dozen others. To those using Amazon to push their political agenda, it's getting tedious!

George Hagenauer
Tue, 02/06/2018 - 1:03pm

Having just moved to Ypsilanti (from Wisconsin which has been fighting a brain drain so bad that 70% of it counties including urban ones have declining birth rates some double digit and may not be viable for maintaining basic services in 10 years) I was struck at how difficult it was to get a drivers license here- the web page is not set up well for relocations. Since my second of 3 attempts (the first one I did not get in the door) occurred the day after the amazon rejection- I was wondering to what extent talent is not counted here. I am 67 not looking for employment - I am working on setting up a part time web business but how many skilled workers within the ages of 20 and 30 without cars are not counted because they like me are invisible not on the voter roles etc. (been here now almost a quarter of the year). Many skilled urban dwelling youth are shunning owning a car- a logical way to develop capital for better investments like housing or on a low income just survive. It is a factor to think about in these days where discouraging people voting and thus becoming visible is all too often the norm. There are some simple changes that can be made to make relocations for those coming here easier.

Brian S
Tue, 02/06/2018 - 7:10pm

Yes, but we hoped that Amazon would be forward thinking enough to actually ignite, and of course then take credit for, Detroit's actual Renaissance. My guess is Amazon is trying to make it sound as if they are going to spend a lot more than they will actually spend, thus they could not actually perform such a feat.

Dave Friedrichs
Sun, 02/11/2018 - 1:30am

If a door closes, another opens. Look at what Amazon's global competitor put on at Cobo April, 2017, U.S. Merchants Conference! The "A" we lost can be "re-ordered" and signify Alibaba. The "J" in Jeff B can just as readily stand for "Jack Ma". SE Michigan, Greater Detroit (with Windsor) has equal and even GREATER potential for "global redevelopment" and 21st century growth of distribution logistics, if ALIBABA headquarters here. Tomorrow, next year and long term, our Great Lakes Heartland location beats Alibaba's Santa Clara spot near the St Andreas fault IMHO. Make contact and let's roll out an effort even better than made for HQ2. (Now's the time, in part due to last April's event @ Cobo.)

Thu, 02/22/2018 - 1:20pm

Detroit not ready ' check out todays potholes and find all the jobs lost over the last 20years
we need to be indenpend from all out of State business that all there money goes to their STATE a nd leave michigan holding the empty bag.Starting with bring"bag" michigan Bell
home owned and homegrown.Local business and local school will teach our children and then trade more sending "bill payment" to out of State.and south the suizides Housing program under the local/tate goverment so the money state hereunto Oho or NY.landlord that donot care about your hometown.