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Former Detroit mayor Dennis Archer talks this city's history, struggles and resurgences

By Will Greenberg, Daily News Editor
Published September 2, 2014

After over a year of bankruptcy proceedings, the city of Detroit is entering the heat of the fight to bring the city back from the brink. For many Detroit citizens, this could mean a long-awaited fresh start. For Dennis Archer, Detroit’s mayor from 1994-2001, this is just the beginning of potential prosperity. Archer is still involved in the city, serving as chairman of the Detroit Regional Chamber and still providing the occasional legal counsel. He spoke with The Michigan Daily about the city, the bankruptcy and what the future may hold.

TMD: The city of Detroit has had struggles that have spanned across several decades. Was it ever a possibility to you during your time as mayor that Detroit might go bankrupt?

Archer: During the eight years that I was in office we had a balanced budget, we had a modest surplus that helped start a “rainy-day fund,” and our pension boards were over-funded during that time. We did not have any deficit, we didn’t have any of the problems that gave rise to what put us into bankruptcy. So, I had not thought about bankruptcy, it didn’t even cross my mind. There were several things that occurred, however, over time that drove the city into bankruptcy and part of it was not the fault of any mayor.

Because of the mortgage debacle — that banks and others are still paying for now, paying fines into the federal government — the property values in the city of Detroit went down tremendously. As a result, the city of Detroit, when that occurred, received less income. Secondly, because of the job loss in the manufacturing sector, it had a terrific impact on the city of Detroit because citizens who live in the city, or indeed those who live outside the city but work in the city, they pay income tax. And when there’s a job loss or there’s layoffs or companies go bankrupt, people are not able to work overtime. That means the second source of income, income tax, is down substantially.

The other thing that occurred that hurt the city of Detroit was that we’ve been losing population in the city of Detroit since 1953. In 1952, we had 1.82 million people living in the city of Detroit. We’ve been losing population ever since (now under 700,000).

When you lose that kind of population, you also lose people paying taxes, both property tax and income tax, and so those kinds of things all combined together served to cause the city to run out of money, no cash to pay its bills.

TMD: How do you think Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr and Mayor Mike Duggan have handled the bankruptcy situation so far?

Archer: I think Kevyn Orr is doing a remarkable job. I think Mayor Duggan and Kevyn Orr are working very nicely together. As well as the demonstrated commitment between the mayor, in this case Mike Duggan, and the city council lead by Council President Brenda Jones. They work very well together and that has created a very positive atmosphere within the city and the responsibility that has been turned over to Mayor Duggan to run. Please remember that emergency financial manager, under our state statute, has broad authority. He could have, should he have chosen to do so, stripped the city council and Mayor Duggan of any definitive role to play, but he did not do that. He worked with Mayor Duggan, and Mayor Duggan and Kevyn Orr are working together. There are some things I know that Mayor Duggan would like to have quicker, but despite that they still have a good working relationship, which bodes well for the city of Detroit.

TMD: What do you think of Mayor Duggan’s vision for the future and his long-term goals for the city?

Archer: With the way the city was existing at the time that Mayor Duggan was sworn in and came into office, I think he’s done a remarkable job with the opportunities that he’s had before him. He’s not had a chance to come in and be, ‘the mayor,’ meaning he’s got the responsibility for everything because it’s been handed to him, different parts of it, by the emergency financial manager. It’s proven that between the two of them they have been able to do a remarkable job in putting the city of Detroit in a position to succeed. Judge Steven Rhodes has also been outstanding.

TMD: One of your major accomplishments as mayor was attracting developers to Detroit. How were you able to do that and how can Duggan do the same in the coming years?

Archer: We were very committed to bringing jobs into the city of Detroit. We needed jobs and we needed to have that kind of opportunity in the city of Detroit. One of my friends, Al Lucarelli — who was the managing director of Ernst and Young and moved to Detroit from Atlanta — came in with an idea that he approached the Detroit Regional Chamber about and that was to see if the Chamber can come up with contributions from business and from political entities like the city of Detroit, county of Wayne, county of Oakland, county of Macomb and other counties in the 12 county region, see if we can come up with $12 million and then go after worldwide businesses that might be willing to come back to the city of Detroit or to the region. The feeling is, given the fact that at the time we had the Red Wings hockey team, the Tigers baseball team both in the city of Detroit, we had the Detroit Institute of Art, we had the Fox Theatre, we had a lot of different things that would appeal to people. If we could get them to come to the region, we could get them to come to the city of Detroit.

TMD: Since the bankruptcy last summer, Detroit has changed its national story to one of recovery and the future but there are still plenty of people, including students at the University, who see only blight and crime. What will it take for people’s minds to change?

Archer: It’s sad when you consider where you are, at an outstanding university, 45 minutes away from the city of Detroit, for someone to have that view without asking questions and learning about it and reading it closer. Do we have abandoned buildings? Yes. Well, remember what I indicated before: we had 1.82 million people living in the city of Detroit back in 1951 - ’52. The city of Detroit, according to the census, the population today is about 690,000 people. If you lose 1.12 million people over that number of years you don’t need the same housing units. As it relates to crime, that problem occurred because of the fiscal problems the city was having and the failure to properly monitor and come up with a good budget. At the time I left office we had, I think, about 3,700 police officers. Today we’ve got about 2,600, and that’s what Dave Bing inherited when he became mayor and that’s what Mayor Duggan is dealing with. But that can be solved and will be solved and is being solved now and crime is being reduced.

So, all I’m saying is that you can find whatever you want to find and find something and make it negative or you can be objective and say, “You know what, here’s how you change it.” Students have different areas of interest that cause them to go to the different colleges within the University of Michigan. You’ve got outstanding professors, you’ve got brilliant young people who are your classmates. You’re there to learn and you’re there to learn because I think you want to make a difference in this world. So, rather than looking at something and saying, “Gee, it’s bad,” and walking away with that impression, the question is, “Ok, what would you do about it? What are your suggestions?”

If people are just content to sit back and go on what hearsay happens today, then those people will always have a negative impression, and you can’t change it unless they see for themselves, or are willing to be objective and open up their eyes and see the progress that’s being made.


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