By Sam Gringlas, Daily News Editor
Published July 30, 2014
This is a piece for the Detroit Beat, a new blog at the Daily. Look for the Detroit Beat link on our website in the fall.
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DETROIT —When the White House announced last winter that a site in Canton, Mich. had been selected to house a previously announced lightweight metals manufacturing institute, one of several institutes set up nationwide to encourage public-private partnerships for innovation in manufacturing technology, some people wondered why it wasn’t Detroit. A facility with the potential to serve as a hub for high-tech innovation could have been a big boon in a city angling for a comeback.
So when Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan told reporters last week he’d brought the $148 million institute to a vacant facility in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, it was heralded as a significant get for the city — and it was two members of the University’s Board of Regents who Duggan said played a big role in making it happen.
“Had it not been for the relationship with those regents, (the institute) probably would have moved to Canton or Livonia or Plymouth, but all we needed was a chance,” he said.
At the press conference, Duggan thanked University President Mark Schlissel and President Emerita Mary Sue Coleman for their support in getting the institute off the ground. Even more emphatically, Duggan thanked the University’s Board of Regents — particularly Regents Mark Bernstein (D) and Andrea Fischer Newman (R) — for helping Detroit score the facility.
Officially called the American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Innovation Institute, the research and development consortium is a public-private partnership headed by the University of Michigan, The Ohio State University and an Ohio-based nonprofit and is funded in part by the federal government.
Duggan said he first heard about the project when he assumed office last January, but by that point, his “friends in the White House” told him the deal was done for the project to be in Canton and it was too late to change course.
“This is the next generation of manufacturing,” Duggan said. “It’s got to be in Detroit!”
But he stood down, at least for awhile. Over the winter, Duggan, a University alum, kept raising the topic with the University’s regents. He saw them frequently while watching the Wolverines compete in the Big Ten Conference and NCAA tournaments and made his interest in the facility clear.
Then, a few months later, he got calls from Bernstein and Newman. They were told at a private meeting of the Board of Regents the Canton contract had fallen through. He said the regents insisted Detroit have a chance to compete if the consortium sought bids for a new location.
Engineering Prof. Alan Taub, who will serve as the institute’s chief technical officer, said by the time the White House awarded the institute in February, the Canton site recommended in the initial proposal had been leased by another party.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Newman said the regents lobbied the University and worked with city officials to help Detroit secure the institute. She also said the University led the way in encouraging the consortium’s other partners to agree on a Detroit site.
“This was just an exciting opportunity for the city — an exciting opportunity for the University — we’re just thrilled to play a small part in it,” Newman said.
Taub said the mayor’s team quickly painted over graffiti, restored power and cut the grass at the proposed site, preparing it for the institute’s leaders to tour over about a week.
Though Taub said it was important to locate the institute in Southeast Michigan, he declined to say that there was a specific benefit to a Detroit location over other communities. However, he said the neighborhood’s burgeoning technology sector was certainly attractive. The parcel is located on Rosa Parks Boulevard, near the location of a new technology center set to house the servers for Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans.
“The chance to be a part of the revitalization of Corktown is a definite enabler,” Taub said.
In an e-mail interview, Regent Larry Deitch (D) said he sees the interests of the University and the state’s largest city “inextricably linked.”
“If Detroit is doing badly, it causes people outside Michigan to wonder if the University is doing badly and that hurts us in recruitment of both faculty and students,” he wrote.
He noted the University is an important economic driver for the entire region, not just Ann Arbor, and said he also wanted to support Duggan, who he has known for years.
“So, since the facility had to go somewhere, why not Detroit where it could contribute to the development of a meaningful urban high tech hub?” he wrote.
Newman said the University is increasingly recognizing its stake in Detroit’s resurgence, and the decision to promote the city’s application is part of that commitment.
“It’s not just the University,” she said. “What you’re seeing is a real interest and involvement in Detroit, not only from across the state, but from across the country. Everybody wants to see Detroit do well and everybody’s excited to be a part of it.”
However, it’s unclear whether the regents’ collaboration with Duggan is most driven by his status as a University alum, old political ties, increasing interest in Detroit or growing optimism for the city’s resurgence. It’s also too soon to tell whether the regents will continue to work with the mayor’s office on other initiatives.
Cynthia Wilbanks, the University’s vice president for government relations, said the University has long worked to foster relationships with Detroit mayors and their administrations. Mayor Dennis Archer, in office from 1994 to 2001, had a particularly healthy relationship with the University, she said.
Wilbanks also noted Duggan has been active on the political scene for decades and already had relationships with regents and other University officials.
Bernstein, Deitch and Newman, as well as Regent Andrew Richner (R), made financial contributions to either Duggan’s campaign or his Super PAC, according to a database compiled by WDET Detroit Public Radio and Bridge Magazine.
Donations from these four members of the University’s Board of Regents account for slightly more than $8,500 of the $5.9 million raised by Mike Duggan for Detroit and the pro-Duggan super PAC Turnaround Detroit.
But Newman said she wouldn’t describe the financial support as anything more than a personal decision and confidence in what Duggan can do for the city. She’s also known the mayor for years; they graduated from the University in the same class.
Wilbanks said it’s a good idea for University officials to leverage and expand relationships with city officials as students and faculty show an increasing interest in engaging with Detroit.
In the last few years, the University has rolled out several new Detroit-related initiatives, including Semester in Detroit, a program that sends University students to study and work in the city, and the University’s Detroit Center.
Newman said the University is also looking to recruit more students from Detroit and noted that the city has become a bigger topic of conversation among the regents over the past five years.
“It’s an important part of our history and it’s an important part of our future,” she said.