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Perspectives from policy conference

By Sam Gringlas, Daily News Editor
Published June 4, 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.

MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan may have been the most talked about guy on Mackinac Island last week.

Early in the annual Mackinac Policy Conference’s second day, Duggan was weaving down the main promenade of the island’s Grand Hotel, fresh from his primetime conference keynote the day before.

Up and down the hotel’s sweeping porch and Media Row, journalists and business leaders were angling for face time with Detroit’s chief executive. People were talking about Duggan — and they were talking about Detroit.

Most every speech that followed his keynote called out the mayor by name. Duggan, who took office earlier this year after a write-in campaign propelled him to victory in November, is often seen as the face of Detroit’s resurgence.

“He has a sense of urgency,” author Malcolm Gladwell said in his lecture at the conference. “He’s in a hurry.”

Duggan’s prominence at the conference signals an increased spotlight on the city of Detroit, even at a conference organizers say was designed to more broadly emphasize statewide issues compared to previous years.

Brad Williams, vice president of government relations at the Detroit Regional Chamber, said his organization tried to build a conference that was also relevant to the entire state. However, he said conversations surrounding Detroit wielded new energy this year.

“This year I think it was different in that what’s happening in Detroit is so impactful to the state of Michigan, particularly this bankruptcy portion,” Williams said. “That has an impact statewide. So I think that’s why you heard so much more conversation about Detroit this year and because we have a new mayor, new council leadership. There’s lots of energy and interest around the city.”

During the four-day gathering, speakers made the case over and over again that the state’s future is intertwined with Detroit’s.

“It’s not about Detroit versus Michigan,” Gov. Rick Snyder said to a hall packed with the state’s most influential business and political leaders. “I hope you’re ready to stand up for the settlement for Detroit, Michigan.”

Snyder, who called for the appointment of an emergency manager, has been a vocal advocate for state support of the city’s rejuvenation and bankruptcy process.

On the heels of the conference, he joined state and city officials in calling on legislators in Lansing to approve the city’s “grand bargain” — a deal that would provide $195 million in state aid to the city. The contribution would be coupled with funds gifted by Detroit Institute of Art benefactors and local philanthropic organizations, allowing the city to settle debts with its pensioners and avoid the sale of DIA art.

The package was approved by the Michigan Senate Tuesday and now awaits the governor’s signature and a vote of approval by the city’s pensioners. Support from legislators across the state — not just in the Metro area — was necessary for the package of bills to pass both houses.

More than ever, the city of Detroit is shaping conversations across the state and it’s doing so in new ways.

“I don’t think we knew exactly where we would be at this point in history, but certainly as we got closer (to the conference), we knew the city would be a focal point of the conversation,” Williams said.

Jeanette Pierce, director of community relations for D:hive, a Detroit organization that provides resources for people who are considering moving into the city, said she noticed the discussion’s additional emphasis on Detroit.

In previous years, Pierce said she was frustrated by panel discussions that brought in practitioners from out-of-state. She said 75 percent of the projects those speakers touted were already going on in Detroit.

“I think too often we kind of look outside instead of looking inside and I think the mayor hammering that stuff home was really part of that,” she said.

Like D:hive, Duggan said his administration’s top priority is to retain the city’s existing population and attract new residents.

“We get up everyday and we focus on what we can do to reverse the population decline in the city of Detroit,” he said in his keynote address. “It governs every single decision we make. We do not have a future if we don’t start growing.”

Though the mayor touted a growing number of technology jobs, Detroit-based artisans and a burgeoning downtown and Midtown housing market, he said he was not “under any illusions” about the city’s challenges. Duggan said the city lost 12,000 in population last year and the unemployment rate remains two times the state’s average.

“I’m going to show you why it’s not hopeless,” he told the audience at the start of the address.

A major part of Duggan’s plan is revitalizing blighted neighborhoods, rather than solely demolishing abandoned homes. In the presentation, Duggan highlighted one neighborhood where 39 homes were slated for demolition. He said a new initiative — one that would allow the city to seize and auction abandoned homes if their owners didn’t get them fixed up and occupied within six months — has already jumpstarted tangible changes in that neighborhood. Now, only nine homes will be demolished.

Duggan also unveiled an ambitious plan to encourage Detroit companies to hire 5,000 Detroit teens next summer. The city is willing to pay half of the salaries if companies can’t foot the bill entirely.

“There’s a lot of kids in our community that feel like they’ve been discarded,” he told the audience, heavily populated with Michigan business leaders. “We need you and our kids need you."

Staving off continued population decline also relies on attracting young people to the city. In an interview with the Daily, Duggan talked about a twenty-something couple from Brooklyn who arrived in Detroit determined to start an organic grocery. They bought an old house in West Village and rented a storefront for a little more than $300 per month.

He said that kind of opportunity wouldn’t be possible at that price and for residents of that age in a more established city.

“For those who have kind of a rebel strike, and who want to start early in life, Detroit gives you an opportunity other cities don’t and those are the kind of people who are attracted,” Duggan said.

Kevyn Orr, the city’s state-appointed emergency manager, said the city’s best pitch to recent college graduates is its position as a center of opportunity for young people.

“It’s a city that’s on an upswing,” he said in an interview with the Daily. “It’s got a lot of interest. It’s going to move. You come in now at a young age, you have a lot more opportunity than if you go to a more established city. That’s a call you’ve got to make.”

Orr recalled his decision to begin his career in Miami after graduating from the University’s Law School. In the early 1980s, Orr said all of his peers were headed to cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. No one was going to Miami, which at the time was plagued by race riots and poverty.

“And my friends said are you out of your mind? Why are you going to this pit? And I said because it’s opportunity — because I’ll be getting in on the ground floor for a city that odds are — I’m making a bet — odds are it’s going to turn around, it’s going to thrive. You go there now; it’s off the charts. I could not predict how are where, but I was willing to take the risk with my career that that was the right move for me. I was willing to take the outcome either way – it was going to be a productive or it was going to be a failure. But that risk was going to be mine to hold.”

Orr, who was appointed by Snyder to lead the municipality through bankruptcy, lauded legislatures in the state’s House of Representatives during his keynote for signing onto provision of state aid to the city and “and understanding it was really a salvation for the city.”

“Through this process, I’m confident that this city — as well as any other city in the nation — can rise from the ashes again. But the time starts now when we can move forward together to get this deal done.”

Though Orr has frequently emphasized the importance of a managed bankruptcy proceeding, he said bankruptcy should not define the city’s narrative.

“Because from my perspective, my job is just a snapshot in the history of the city… It’s just a course correction that was long overdue,” he said.

Malcolm Gladwell, the New York Times bestselling author of “Tipping Point” and “Blink,” focused his conference keynote on transformations, specifically what’s required for reinventing the city of Detroit.

“It’s going to take some courage,” Gladwell said. “It’s going to take standing up and doing something the rest of the world thinks is crazy.”

Gladwell said the world has come to see Detroit as a city marked by ruin.

“There has been a frame in which this country has seen Detroit for a long time,” he said. “People have been telling this story for 25 years.”

But transformation, Gladwell noted, requires a reframing of the problem at hand. He said seeing an issue — or a place — in a different light can be challenging when people are already deeply invested in the way they see things.

“It’s up to all of you to change that. It’s not about decay and decline — it’s about opportunity,” he said.

Despite a conference that maintained a largely optimistic and upbeat tone, Detroit’s road ahead is still chock-full of challenges. The city’s struggling schools and high crime rates may give people reason to question whether the progress touted at the conference provides a false sense of optimism. Williams said issues like education and public safety must also be addressed for families to relocate to the city en masse.

“We are not done reinventing the city,” he said. “There’s lots of work yet to be done.”

He also noted there have been plenty of promising moments in the city’s recent history, such as revitalization projects leading up to the 2006 Super Bowl under embattled mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, that didn’t result in long-lasting reform.

But in interviews with the Daily, officials and community leaders said recent progress is no exaggeration.

“The optimism you saw at the conference this year was absolutely real,” Williams said. “There have been lots of different starts of renewal for the city of Detroit over the course of the last several decades. This one has a palpable sense of reality.”


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