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Urban chief outlines new normal for cities

Harvey Hollins III is the director of the Michigan Office of Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives and is a principal adviser to Gov. Rick Snyder on urban economic development. He is a loaned executive through the Council of Michigan Foundations, and his salary is supported by individual foundations through the council.

Bridge spoke with Hollins in the wake of Snyder’s budget proposal for fiscal 2013 and as a new report, commissioned by statewide CEO group Business Leaders for Michigan and prepared by Public Sector Consultants Inc. and the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, was to be issued on urban and metropolitan strategies for Michigan.

Bridge: How do you view the goals and strategies in the report commissioned by Business Leaders for Michigan?

A: Generally speaking, the goals I think are good objectives but we need to figure out a way as a state to tactically land those in a community.

Bridge: Can this report provide a blueprint that will be a game-changer for Michigan and its cities and metropolitan areas?

A: I don’t look at this report being the silver bullet report. I think this report, in combination with other efforts in the state, and if we can piece this thing together right, will certainly contribute to a game-changing environment in the state. I think for example, the current initiatives on the ground right now, that are occurring right now in the state, are beneficial. When you add this report to that, I think you can accelerate opportunity.

This report helps us to really understand our state much better. It gives us a clear indication where opportunities in terms of sector might lie, and it helps us to bring focus on strategic initiatives that will address those sectors, for example, like advanced manufacturing.

Bridge: What initiatives are your top priority? What are you working on right now?

A: This office was designed to use the Brookings Institution report … as a guiding document for the state’s approach to urban centers.

To achieve that, there are three things that we will do:

One, we’ll have satellite offices in Grand Rapids, in Flint and in Kalamazoo. The top priority is to get the satellite operations up and running for the governor. We’ve got to get the infrastructure in place.

The second priority is to get the advisory group up and operating – an advisory group that involves foundations, chamber organizations, some business leaders and key stakeholders around the state, to help advise this office on the direction of how we engage the locals.

The third priority is to develop an urban agenda/strategy for the state’s approach to how it will engage the cities based on the goals defined in the Brookings report.

Once we have that defined, that strategy will be driven in part by where we currently have resources, and a resource map on how we can move or better align our investments to achieve better outcomes in our urban centers.

I want to see on a map, where the state has been putting its money. Either direct state money, or pass-through from the feds. That’s what’s in play right now with departments, a request to provide address mapping for funds.

Bridge: And the overall goal of that?

A: It’s just to get a snapshot where the state has been playing in our cities. If I have foundations and businesses putting millions of dollars of resources in this particular area, and the state is playing over here on the other side of the fence…we want to maximize impact alongside with others who are investing in our cities.

Bridge: What do Michigan cities need to become more prosperous and reinvent themselves?

That’s a good question. I’m going to segment it in two sections.

Internally, a city needs to have a guiding master plan. That is critical. The other internal thing they need is transparency and trust in how they dialogue. So for example, you have Grand Rapids that’s doing a lot of this kind of investment. Government is talking to private, private is talking to philanthropic, they’re all talking. You go to other communities, you don’t have that conversation at all. And you have groups of interested organizations taking it upon themselves to move the needle somewhere, and it’s not a comprehensive approach, it’s a spot-check approach.

The external part involves the state. If we are going to play a role in this, then the state has to be a lot more strategic in how it allocates dollars comprehensively.

Comprehensively means, for example, not just where (the Michigan State Housing Development Authority) puts their funding, but where MSHDA and the (Michigan Economic Development Corp.) jointly put funding. Or where MEDC, Agriculture and Human Services (departments) put funding.

So there needs to be multiple agencies engaged. We have to think more comprehensively outside of the silos, in terms of how the monies are being invested, and where. It has to have a benefit not only to business in the downtown, but it has to have benefit to neighborhoods.

Bridge: How do you define economic impact?

A: On one hand, jobs are critical to simulate an economy.

But when you talk about impact to an urban center, that impact is not going to be felt unless the individuals who are working in these centers are also spending more time in those urban environments. If they’re not living in the urban centers, are they shopping there, are they spending time in museums, how is that time being used.

How do we create opportunity for an employee or for a person to spend more time in that city. And where is the state’s role in that. That’s one of the questions that I’m going to put before my advisory board.

Bridge: Revenue sharing -- and the decline of it -- is a major issue that cities cite. So what do you say when it comes up in conversation?

A: The state has had to do things and restructure itself; as a result, the cities will have to do the same thing. We just don’t have the revenues that were coming in, in the heyday of the auto industry, and we just can’t do the same thing and expect different results.

For the first time in years we’re not running a (projected) deficit. And the reforms that the governor led in 2011 manifested itself in a stable budget that’s in the black, and now we have something to build on. There is a 2 percent constitutional increase to revenue sharing in the budget.

One factor of revenue sharing is funding that has been used by locals for public safety. There is an increase in the budget of $15 million for law enforcement; that’s in addition to the increase in statutory revenue sharing programs.

Bridge: The governor has talked about shared sacrifice, but some will say what about shared commitment -- How can or should the state reinvest in its communities?

A: This year the governor’s focus is to build the fiscal year 2013 budget by investing in four priority areas: Education, human services, public safety and roads. And that’s how we begin to reinvest in our state. This is what government does extremely well.

Bridge: Are you promoting regionalism, and if so, how?

A: Absolutely. The satellite offices, for example, are not necessarily offices that will focus on the city that they are located in, but they will be a regional focus. So, for example, the Flint office will also work with the cities of Saginaw, Bay City and Midland. Grand Rapids will have a secondary focus on Muskegon and also Holland. And Kalamazoo will have a secondary focus on Battle Creek and Benton Harbor.

Bridge: So what does that mean?

A: The meaning of it is that the effort of the state in doing what we need to do in the city of Flint, for example, should have spillover to other big cities in that area. We would like to see if best practices in any of these cities, can work in the other. We’re trying to cast a broader net.

Amy Lane is a former reporter for Crain's Detroit Business, where she covered utilities, state government and state business for many years.

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