Northern Michigan residents “ho hum” over Detroit’s bankruptcy.

Ask just about any northern Michigander about Detroit’s bankruptcy and they’ll tell you  much the same—should have happened 20 years ago.  After moving here some 41 years ago from Lansing myself and eventually becoming the editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review, I have found the attitude towards Detroit hasn’t changed much.

Probably the strongest northern Michigan Detroit advocate early on was moderate Republican 91-year-old William Milliken, a Traverse City native, who served as Michigan’s longest governor for 14 years from 1969 to 1983, and is now retired on Old Mission Peninsula. He worked to forge political ties with Detroit, especially with the late Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young who was the African-American mayor of Detroit.

The Detroit media is flooded with stories after the city of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy protection in federal court last month making it the largest U.S. city in U.S. history to do so.  Not much appears in the northern Michigan press. The plain truth— not many care.

And why should they? Those living up here can still travel down I-75 to watch major league sports—Tigers, Lions, Pistons and Red Wings, as well as go to a concert at the Fox or Max M Fisher Symphony Hall, Filmore, Masonic Temple or see the Detroit Zoo and Detroit Institute of Arts.  They can eat in Greektown and gamble and stay at places like the MGM Grand Casino, Westin’s Book Cadillac or Detroit Marriot at the Ren Cen.  A few also venture to places like Wayne State, Marygrove College, Detroit Mercy or Lawrence Tech for higher education, but not many.

Most just don’t see where the City of Detroit’s bankruptcy filing has affected their lives. Northern Michigan residents for the most part are fairly egocentric when it comes to viewing other parts of the state. However, it is not much different when it comes to Detroit viewing northern Michigan.  Most Detroiters look at northern Michigan as a vacation to boat, ski, camp, hunt, fish and visit the area’s rich historical spots like the Mackinac State Historic Parks and Mackinac Island with the historical Grand Hotel perched on the island overlooking the Straits of Mackinac and Mackinac Bridge.

Others see it as a playground for the wealthy often living in private, sometimes gated, resort communities in Bay Harbor and Bay View, located on both outskirts of Petoskey, Harbor Springs, Charlevoix, Boyne City, Traverse City, Crystal Lake, Leland and the Leelanau Peninsula.

Bill McWhirter, Harbor Springs seasonal resident, reflects the views shared by many about the Detroit bankruptcy when asked by Bridge Magazine.  He travelled the world as a Time Magazine foreign correspondent for some 25 years covering the globe from South Africa to Europe before returning to the US, as a national correspondent based in Chicago and Detroit (1991-1998) then taught at MSU’s School of Journalism before retiring a few years ago. He also served on the Wayne State University Library Board.

McWhirter says the real culture fault line in Detroit, race and the flight that began whole new wealthy cities, not just suburbs, like Birmingham, left a legacy of upkeep to a largely African-American unprepared and inexperienced political class who proceeded to pretty much fleece the place.

“Bankruptcy is really just another form of political foster parenting,” he told Bridge Magazine.  “No one is really impacted by the loss of services or civic pensions, even by people like me who retain social links (through the DAC) or community ones (Wayne State); it's still a two-headed coin-- downtown Detroit is still a vibrant spot for major league sports, entertainment, upscale living and an impressive renewal of the Detroit Athletic Club, a social and economic recovery achieved by few other city clubs in the nation.”

He says it is still a financial and political failure, even on a colossal scale, while Detroit still offers a lot of life to people who still love to come for the game and stay for the night.

“Despite the recovery of the U.S. Automotive industry, it certainly isn't the Big Three of old-- Chrysler is Italian-owned and even Ford is run by its celebrated CEO Alan Mullaly who still doesn't even have his permanent home here,” he added. McWhirter at one time covered the travails of former Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, who began his began his career in engineering and the sales at Ford Motor in 1946 and became president in 1970 before being strongly courted by the Chrysler Corporation, which was on the verge of going out of business.

Like many others, McWhirter has found most of his northern Michigan conversations about Detroit’s plight have centered on concerns over raiding the riches of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Petoskey’s Crooked Tree Arts Center Executive Director Liz Ahrens says selling DIA assets that were gifted and acquired to enhance the culture of a community is not a fix of a problem.

“The situation that Detroit finds itself in requires a new model and plan for running a major municipality,” says Ahrens, who also services on Michigan council for arts and cultural affairs. “For decades money has been dumped into Detroit trying to aid neighborhoods and individuals. Yet no plan to monitor these grant programs was in place.  Selling a few paintings is not going to remedy a broken city--it will erode the foundation even more.”

Other former Detroiters, who have retreated north over the years look at the bankruptcy as a new beginning stimulating opportunity for new construction that will creates jobs building trades and professionals. A Petoskey architect, who grew up in Detroit and graduated from Lawrence Tech, had wished he were 30 years younger to return because he sees a lot of opportunity for those in his profession.

There remain many who have second or even third homes in northern Michigan prefer to live a quiet and private life under the radar screen, when staying in the region, but remain active in Detroit with deep interests. They read like a “Who’s Who in Detroit”.

Among those are Julie and Peter Cummings, who led the campaign to renovate Max M Fisher Symphony Hall, name after her father.  Julie, a Detroit native and philanthropist leader serves as the managing trustee of her family's foundation, whose other members include her mother and four siblings. The Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation supports work that strengthens families and communities in need. In Detroit the foundation concentrates its effort in the Jewish community and on early childhood development in the northwest Detroit neighborhood of Brightmoor. The Foundation is also committed to fostering AIDS awareness and to supporting the major cultural institutions on which the rebirth of the foundation feels the city depends.

Another is Denise Ilitch is a Detroit-area businessperson, lawyer, and member of the Board of Regents for the University of Michigan. She worked on Mayor Dave Bing’s transition team. Her family’s business includes ownership the Detroit Tigers, Detroit Red Wings, Little Caesars, the Fox Theatre, and other Detroit-area businesses. She is the owner and publisher of Ambassador magazine and the owner of Denise Ilitch Designs.

The Farbman family led by Burton (and Suzy) Farbman, Chairman and retired Chief Executive Officer of Farbman Group, has had over thirty years of experience in all aspects of commercial and industrial real estate.  Farbman’s projects total more than 10 million square feet including restoration of the Old Wayne County Building at a cost exceeding $30 million and development of the third tower of the luxurious Riverfront Towers Apartments in downtown Detroit, in addition to owning and managing the Fisher Building.

The list goes on, but permanent residents from my neck of the woods simply think it is up Detroiters to fix their own city and don’t expect help from those Up North.

Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey, Ferris State and Michigan State University. He serves on Bridge Magazine’s Board of Advisors.

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Tue, 08/20/2013 - 8:30am
It is as disappointing as it is troubling to read this op-ed. Northern MI residents should care very much what happens to Detroit. It remains home to more than 700,000 residents of the State of Michigan, much the same as those who live in the cities and small towns of northern Michigan. Your economic fate is as tied to them as theirs is to yours. That said the situation in Detroit not only begs the question of a new model of local governance but also points to the broken system of municipal finance that has worked to fund critical local services over the years. Ironic to read the thought that Detroit shouldn't expect much help from those in northern Michigan Recall that some 20+ years ago it was a bankrupt school district in northern michigan that led to radical changes in school finance. Those in glass houses shouldn't throw stones and the people of northern michigan should not be so quick to dismiss a city that was and will be again the economic engine of our state. You can sit back and do nothing but complain and ignore the situation or be part of the solution.
Wed, 08/21/2013 - 12:05am
Arnold, It seems the 'glasshouse' has been Detroit's for decades and they were willing to throw 'stones' at all of those communities around them and the rest of Michigan. It seems they have been making their own choices for decades even as the consequences have grown more and more severe so why shouldn't they be allowed to enjoy their choices since they don't seem interested in changing them. As for the rest of the State being tied to Detroit in what way other then paying more and more for Detroit wants? If Detroit isn't willing to change itself as the much of the rest of the State has done to survive in the changing economy why should those that are making those sacrifices make more so Detroit won't have to change? When does Detroit become responsible for themselves, why should it always be everyone outside of Detroit? For how long does the rest of the State have to keeping 'helping' Detroit? Is it for a year, a decade, a century? Detroit is in worse condition that New Orleans after Katrina and without a hurricane. Have you ever wonder why all those (million) people left Detroit? Or do simply believe that the rest of the State should only care and pay for the perpetuation of the City that they left?
Tue, 08/20/2013 - 11:01am
Really interesting given that the FACT is that northern Michigan counties are by far the highest users of government aid in the state. Look at this map, compiled by the New York Times, that shows how northern Michigan counties use the most Medicaid, Medicaid, Social Security, farm support and other government assistance. love the idea that these folks like to be seekers, they are called by free market economists. They like to go to Detroit, use the services there, but don't want to be bothered with paying for those services. We used to have a robust revenue sharing system that adequately addressed these issues. That has been largely eliminated now. And Bill McWhirter's comments are pretty hilarious. Let's remember who made sure Kwame was was campaign contributions from the white business community that make sure he had enough money to win after finishing second in the primary. The reality is that nobody can provide decent services to Detroiters given the tax base that is available in the city and the revenue sharing cuts it has suffered.. And now we find out that the Legislature is refusing to help cities get legitimate income tax dollars they deserve by requiring out-of-town companies with offices in the city to withhold tax dollars. To blame Detroit's problems on corruption (or as McWhirter seems to want to say, black folks who don't know how to govern themselves) is to ignore the reality of the situation.
Diana Menhennick
Tue, 08/20/2013 - 7:31pm
In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, we are all concerned about Detroit because it does reflect upon the entire state. The revenue sharing continues to decrease and municipalities are struggling and cutting costs while trying to provide services to our constituents. I strongly disagree with McWhirter's notion that Detroiters are too ignorant to govern themselves.
Tue, 08/20/2013 - 7:41pm
I find Bill McWhirter's comments to be representative of a certain class of people living in the more affluent areas of northern Michigan. Yes there is a racial divide that exists; and Detroit still suffers from the riots of 1967, which began the white flight from the city! Local, state and federal corruption exists in every hamlet, town and city in the state and the nation. It seems that Detroit had its share of overly enthusiastic politicians, both black and white who robbed and are still robbing the public trough. Our State legislature is the least transparent in the nation, and continues to be overly influenced by lobbyists and large corporate entities. The divide between the haves and have nots continues to widen, reflecting the attitudes of some northern Michigan residents. There are more children living in poverty in Michigan then ever before, both in the north and the southern parts of the state. This is a problem that will haunt all of us not only those in Detroit. The county jail debacle is just another symptom of a corrupt mismanaged political system run amuck. So it's not only Detroit, and it's not only a racial issue; it is symptomatic of the moral decay that has consumed our nation.