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Government > Stir It Up

If we rebuilt war-torn Europe ... Why not Detroit?

 

Published 1/14/2009

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The common attitude about metro Detroit is that this is a morbid, decaying Rust Belt city. That's the impression one would take from the opposition in Washington and across the country to the idea of government loans for Detroit automakers. But Soji Adelaja, director of Michigan State University's Land Policy Institute, sees the Detroit glass as half full.

"Detroit has extensive assets," Adelaja says. "It has a long history of deep culture and a historic music heritage. It has one of the largest expanses of vacant land of any city. If we are interested in green urban infrastructure, Detroit has greater potential than many other places. There's potential for more local food systems related to urban agriculture. We should lead the country. It has the lowest property values so it is an affordable city. There are Great Lakes access points; the waterfront is beautiful. Detroit has the potential to be globally relevant. It has great potential to catch the imagination and interest of global investors and private equity players. There are major health care facilities, universities and a major international airport within a short distance. There is a history of innovation in the region. Just because we're not manufacturing cars doesn't mean we can't manufacture wind turbine components. That will be big. We're part of a regional economy. The metro area has the strongest concentration of knowledge workers in the state. The ability to attract knowledge workers could be a center point of regional development."

Whew!

That's a pretty extensive list, but Adelaja has been working more than a year with the Detroit City Council, three city departments and an ad hoc think tank to develop a Marshall Plan for Detroit that builds on these assets. Adelaja's institute and others involved have given seven presentations to the City Council that focus on making our half-full glass overflow. The Detroit Marshall Plan harks back to the $13 billion ($123 billion in 2008 dollars) plan for the reconstruction of Western Europe after World War II. The plan paid for rebuilding buildings and infrastructure to get nations' economies back on track. It was also a hedge against communism.

"I liken the situation of many of our cities today to post-World War II Europe," Adelaja says. "The difference is it was alien forces that did the damage. Now it's the economic forces of globalization."

Detroit's Marshall Plan estimates that it will take $10 billion over five years to reposition the city. But neither Detroit nor the state of Michigan has that kind of money. There is some movement in the private sector to make change, such as forces pushing a regional light rail system, but it will take a massive public-private partnership to revive southeast Michigan.

Which is where the Marshall Plan helps — timing is everything. The Detroit plan has been in the works for more than a year and was adopted by the council in December. You may not have heard much about it because at the time we were delirious with Big Three bailout mania. What's important is that having a plan in place makes a difference as the Obama administration comes into power with an aggressive agenda to right the economic ship of state.

"It's in perfect alignment with what Obama has in mind for the country and Gov. Granholm's plans for the state," says City Council President Pro Tem JoAnn Watson, who has shepherded the planning process. "I sat down with Kim Trent [director of the governor's southeast Michigan office] to go over it and she said, 'It's as if you all had a meeting with Gov. Granholm.' It gave me chills. It's thrilling that so many minds are coming together."

This may be our last, best chance to turn things around. The reality of auto industry downsizing is finally sinking in. The forces of regional cooperation are gaining muscle — witness the planned commuter rail line from Detroit's New Center to Ann Arbor. Detroit's recent political shakeup has, at least for the moment, stopped the bickering between the mayor's office and City Council. And nationally, there is a consensus and purpose we haven't had since the 9/11 attacks of 2001. Folks have realized just how deep the doo-doo is.

"In the case of Detroit they really need to be thinking not just in terms of temporary bailout," says Adelaja. "Places with a plan and a vision have a better chance of righting themselves. You can't move from bad or from good to great by just waltzing your way through it. ... The rejuvenation of Detroit is not a silver-bullet thing. There needs to be a strategy tied to a vision of what we want the city to be. Powerful vision is not the result of a single silver-bullet strategy. I don't think this is a case where one solution fixes everything."

Unlike the CEOs of the Big Three automakers, we have a plan in hand when the federal government starts putting the economic stimulus initiatives in place.

We won't all be sitting around holding hands and singing "Kumbaya." There are going to be tough choices and knock-down, drag-out fights as entrenched interests fight to hold on to their slice of pie. For instance, the Detroit incinerator, always controversial, faces a showdown.

Watson is adamant that the incinerator will be shut down after the city's financial obligations are retired on June 30. That will throw a curve ball into the entire region's trash disposal system.

"We had an ordinance prepared by attorneys that Detroit trash after June 30 cannot be processed there," Watson says. "We must go to curbside recycling, which every other significant city in the nation has done. Asthma has been rising here since the incinerator has been open. It does not save money."

Other potentially disturbing issues include the suggestion that some of the expanses of city-owned land be made available to investors with no tax obligations for three years. And the idea of encouraging immigration to stanch the city's brain drain could rile up a city where we already have an unhealthy distrust of outsiders.

That's not stopping Watson, who plans to speak to members of Congress next week during a two-day visit to Washington for President Barack Obama's inauguration. That might keep the city in their minds as they move forward.

There are arguments of all kinds to be settled. Should the city government have power to fix the school system? Will we finance transportation with a toll road system? How will urban agriculture fit into a food supply system and attract supermarkets? How will we transition people to jobs in a different economy?

Both economic and otherwise, these look to be very stimulating times. And candidates for mayor need to be stimulated to weigh in on this plan.

While we're being stimulated, how about a little eye candy too? "Living with scarcity, visions of hope" is the work of activists-photographers Frank Hammer and his daughter Melina opening at the Swords into Plowshares Gallery and Peace Center on Jan. 17. The photos include powerful images of tragic waste inside an abandoned Detroit Public Schools warehouse, and urban and country life in Cuba from a 2003 labor delegation trip there.

The exhibit (up through March 21) feeds the subjects of three forums at the gallery: on Jan. 24, a discussion of Detroit's Education Crisis; on Feb. 21, the greening of Detroit and the food security movement in southeast Michigan; and on March 14, a talk titled "U.S./Cuba: which way now?"

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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