What business wants from Detroit’s next mayor

Bridge contributor Amy Lane talked to Business Leaders for Michigan CEO Doug Rothwell about the results of a new Detroit mayoral election poll, commissioned by BLM and The Center for Michigan.

Bridge: What is the business community looking for in a new Detroit mayor?

Someone who can deliver the basic services that people expect living in a city: a safe, clean and accessible community.  That means responsive police, reliable trash pick-ups, well-lit streets and buses that show up on time.

Bridge: How can a new mayor be an effective mayor, while wearing the handcuffs of bankruptcy?

The emergency manager has his hands full restructuring the city's finances and won’t be around forever.  A mayor can and should proactively develop plans to deliver the basic services people need, build the political and financial support necessary to implement them and work with the emergency manager to make them happen.  There's no reason to believe the EM would stop good plans from being implemented.

Bridge: Detroit’s bankruptcy filing has been a hit to the city’s and state’s image. How important is this election, ultimately, to Michigan’s national image as an attractive and competitive location for business and economic development?

I'd disagree that it's been a negative hit.  There's been a balanced narrative about the city in the national news and much of the coverage has focused on the revival going on downtown and in some of the neighborhoods.  It accelerated getting that side of the story out. There's no doubt some will hesitate investing until the bankruptcy is resolved. But I think more are considering investing and want to be part of the solution and the proof is what we're seeing on the ground today - $12 billion in new investment and 12,000 new jobs in a few short years.

Bridge: How can a new mayor help with business attraction?

The mayor of a city, just like the governor of a state, is the chief spokesperson for that jurisdiction. One of the most important responsibilities of these leaders is to relentlessly shape the narrative about their community and sell people on investing there. Having said that, the first, second and third priority of the new mayor should be about fixing basic city services.

Bridge: For the business community statewide, beyond Southeast Michigan’s borders, what else is at stake in this election?

As the largest city in the state and the place that people around the world recognize more than even the state itself, Detroit shapes the narrative of Michigan.  As such, the mayor and council are prominent ambassadors of the state. Mayor Bing helped improve the image of the state because he was an ethical, professional leader. The state will benefit if the next mayor and council share these qualities and have the ability to work together to get the city working again.

Bridge: Your group’s Michigan Turnaround Plan is an agenda to making Michigan a top ten state for job, economic and personal income growth. It contains recommendations for continuing Michigan’s turnaround and revitalizing its economy, including the need to accelerate redevelopment of Michigan’s largest cities and metropolitan areas, with special emphasis on Detroit. What will Business Leaders for Michigan be wanting to see with the next mayor, in terms of advancing the goals of the Turnaround Plan?

Step 5 of the plan identifies the importance of redeveloping our central cities and specifically outlines the "basics" that need to be present to enable redevelopment to happen. Our hope is that the next mayor will focus on delivering the basics and support others who are working to redevelop the city. Obvious examples include preventing the bureaucracy from getting in the way of good ideas or convening the various stakeholders needed to support redevelopment efforts. A mayor doesn't and shouldn't have to do it all. He or she simply needs to provide the environment where others feel confident that their work can have impact.

Bridge: What is the biggest thing the next mayor of Detroit can do, to help the city become more prosperous and reinvent itself?

It's terrific so many urban pioneers are redeveloping Detroit today. But the city's long-term success will be based on how well it positions Detroit as vibrant place to live or work. We're closer to that point than we have been in many decades for business investors, but we still have a ways to go to repopulating most of the neighborhoods. It can happen, but it even took New York more than a decade to start reversing population loss.

Bridge: How much importance should the new mayor place on regionalism? 

Detroit is a part of a region of five million people, not just a city of 700,000. Because the mayor is the leader of the core city in that region, Detroit disproportionately benefits any time the region does well. The city can't work without residents going to and from jobs within the entire region or using assets, like transit, cultural amenities or services, throughout the region.  Regional solutions help everyone do better without any one community bearing the full cost of the service.

Bridge: Detroit’s new mayor will face many challenges. Are there ways that other urban mayors, in Michigan or elsewhere in the country, could be helpful or instructive to the new mayor?

We believe very strongly in benchmarking and identifying best practices.  But each community is distinctive and needs to develop solutions that fit its own character and situation.  We'd encourage the new mayor to talk with other leaders and conduct a comprehensive benchmarking study that can be used to develop his or her own turnaround strategy.

Bridge: You have said that the mayor and the city council that will be elected in November need to be especially accountable, transparent and effective. What can the new mayor do to work constructively with the council? What advice would you offer on how they might work as a team?

The first step is to recognize they must work as a team.  That doesn't mean they can't disagree, but they should do it in a respectful, thoughtful way. Detroit's reputation and redevelopment has been hurt in the past by the conflicts and animosity coming from city government. Mayor Bing has gone a long way towards overcoming this, but the new leaders have to sustain and build the city's reputation as a place that "works."  In part, that means city leaders who work together.

Bridge: What is the biggest opportunity this election provides? And, post-election, what is the biggest danger?

It's an opportunity for city government to catch up with the changing narrative of Detroit. Some say the city hit bottom with the bankruptcy filing. City government may have hit bottom then, but the city itself was already on the rise based on several years of rapid redevelopment. The election is a chance to elect leaders who understand and talk about this new Detroit that is taking shape.

Post-election, the new political leadership can hit a home run if they put their citizens first which includes being careful stewards of their finite revenues and delivering the basic services that their residents need.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Charles Richards
Fri, 09/27/2013 - 5:44pm
When asked, "What is the biggest thing the next mayor of Detroit can do, to help the city become more prosperous and reinvent itself?", Mr. Rothwell gave a vacuous answer bereft of meaning. He said, "But the city’s long-term success will be based on how well it positions Detroit as vibrant place to live or work." Yes, of course. But just what concrete, specific steps does he take to do that? It is trivial, and redundant, to say that to make the city prosperous, the new Mayor must make it an attractive place to live. Just what would he do to make it attractive? To his credit, Mr. Rothwell does say "the first, second and third priority of the new mayor should be about fixing basic city services." But just how should the new Mayor allocate the city's resources among basic city services? What budget recommendations does Mr. Rothwell recommend?
William Plumpe
Tue, 01/14/2014 - 3:16pm
I think you are too harsh on Mr. Rothwell sir. He already answered the question. I can tell you as a City of Detroit resident for almost 25 years that I want the same things the business leaders want. Services of a reasonable quality at a reasonable cost. Meaning improved police response times within the average range for a City like Detroit. Enough fire fighters and equipment to do the job. Traffic lights and street lights that work properly and are maintained. And property tax and income tax rates that reflect the quality of the service. Detroit has one of the highest overall tax rates and the worst quality of service in the State. I want better quality services at a lower cost. Is that clear enough? And besides being a Detroit resident I am also a Democrat. Enough said.