DETROIT (WWJ) – When it comes to urban revitalization, collaborate or die.
That was the word from four experts Thursday morning in the latest installment of the Michigan Chronicle’s “Pancakes and Politics” series, held at the Detroit Athletic Club and sponsored in part by WWJ Newsradio 950.
The panelists said cities offer advantages like cultural institutions that other places can’t, and today’s young creative and entrepreneurial workers crave cool urban environments. Michigan cities can take advantage of that to create prosperity, the panelists said.
George Jackson, president and CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., said cities are benefiting from creative financing to get deals done and a desire for many younger people to move back into downtowns — and in Detroit’s case, to the downtown waterfront. He said people outside Detroit often don’t know what’s happening.”
Lansing Mayor and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Virg Bernero, from the audience, asked the panel that given all the problems with Michigan cities, whether cities are defunct and should be replaced by metropolitan-wide local government.
Not quite, but close, the panel said. “It’s a case of collaborate or die,” said panelist Harvey Hollins, director of the Michigan Office of Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives. “There’s no reason for Highland Park to have its own fire station, for instance, when it’s surrounded by three Detroit fire stations. That makes no sense whatsoever.”
Panelist Tim Terrentine, vice president of the Kalamazoo economic development agency Southwest Michigan First, noted that the region covered by his organization is comprised of eight counties and nearly 250 frequently duplicative local units of government. But he said collaboration is on the rise, with one building authority taking over and standardizing building permits in three of those counties. Emergency dispatch is also being consolidated, he said.
Panelist H. James Williams, dean of the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, said he’s also seeing consolidation in government agencies like health departments. And he praised regional economic development efforts that pay little regard to local government boundaries.
“The fact is, you’ve already merged,” Terrentine said. “I drove in yesterday and saw people moving back and forth across these lines we created.”
Hollins said that the “elephant in the room” about local government collaboration in metro Detroit is race. “Detroit has a history” in that regard, he said, “Kalamazoo does not. Getting light rail across Eight Mile Road is a racial issue here.” Hollins jokingly referred to Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids as “Pleasantville” compared to Detroit, “people bouncing around happy.”
“They’re not all happy,” Williams insisted.
Terrentine noted that “on the west side of the state, we are cheering for Detroit. We understand that as Dr. King said, our fates are inextricably linked.”
And he said Kalamazoo has found a way to use anonymous philanthropy for economic development, from the Kalamazoo Promise, anonymously donated money that offers every Kalamazoo Public Schools graduate free tuition to any Michigan college they can gain acceptance to, to a $100 million anonymous gift that is building a medical school for Western Michigan University.
When it comes to the city government’s recent financial consent agreement with the state, the Michigan Chronicle’s Bankole Thompson asked Jackson whether he could “bank on this model.”
“Well, I know I couldn’t bank on what’s been going on the past 20 years,” Jackson said. “I don’t know if this is going to work or not without some form of bankruptcy, honestly.”
And Jackson said he “really wished all these protesters had come out during the decline” of city finances, not waited until the city reached a fiscal crisis.
Health care was also called a key to economic development, with all panelists saying “eds and meds,” educational and medical institutions, are worthy targets for growth.
“Medical devices is something we do well,” Terrentine said. “We make plastics and metal parts and bearings well.”
At the end of the program, when asked to name a well-run city, Jackson named Toronto, where “special interests are not allowed to violate planning.” Terrentine named Austin, Texas and its “eds and meds” growth strategy. Williams mentioned Minneapolis. And Hollins, asked last, complained that “you’ve taken all my favorites” before naming Washington, D.C., which he said has seen a renaissance after being an economic basket case.