Economic development leaders talk about what’s next in a post-bankruptcy Detroit.
Exactly four years ago, as Detroit was spiraling down an economically unstable trajectory, Time magazine asked national thought-leaders what they’d do for Detroit’s future.
Architect Daniel Libeskind suggested giving away land to encourage homesteaders, Author John Gallagher envisioned a more entrepreneurial city — with urban farms. Former Ambassador Andrew Young opined on an aggressive effort to “enlist the business community” as a key stakeholder so that they feel ownership of the city’s future. Urban planner Toni Griffin instructed Detroit to “rethink transportation.”
Today’s Detroit has moved forward on all of those themes to some degree.
The one idea that is least advanced is former Detroiter Jeff Sachs’ thoughts around green tech. He suggested we use our concentration and tradition of top engineering talent so Detroit can branch into “intercity rail, advanced batteries, renewable-energy systems and smart grids.”
While he admitted this is utopian, Sachs reasoned that the continuation of abandonment, despair and unemployment is unthinkable. While plans for a high-speed rail corridor were announced recently with trains from Detroit to Chicago that would whisk passengers 110 mph, those plans are still quite conceptual.
On Nov. 7, Detroit received news that was more definitive. The court approved Detroit’s restructuring. The city reached a post-bankruptcy era, and its future is dependent on its ability to grow economic opportunity that can be felt along every one of its 142.9 square miles.
The JN sought out the voices of leaders taking initiative to promote economic development in Detroit including Ned Staebler, vice president for economic development at Wayne State University; Mark Davidoff, Michigan managing partner at Deloitte LLP; David Provost, chairman, president and CEO of Talmer Bank and Trust; and Jeff Aronoff, executive director of D:hive Detroit, a physical “welcome center” to Detroit’s Central Business District.
How would you assess the current stage of Detroit’s “comeback”?
Davidoff: With refreshed leadership over the past few years at the state and local government levels and with a renewed commitment from the corporate and foundation communities to public private partnerships, we have broken down many of the barriers to sustained economic growth. I believe we are still in the early phases of the comeback and are properly positioned now for a positive change in Michigan’s economic landscape.
Aronoff: Exciting, but vulnerable. On one hand, you’ve got folks who continue to write off Detroit; on the other hand, you have folks who visit the greater Downtown area and think that Detroit’s “comeback” has passed its tipping point and is a foregone conclusion. The reality is somewhere in the middle, and there’s a lot of work yet to be done citywide.
Staebler: I think it’s beyond the nascent stage. I think it’s really taken root and you’re starting to see secondary blooms. Over the last few years, you’ve seen a lot of little things that are now turning into bigger things, lots of things that show this is a more sustainable recovery. Clearly, we have a long way to go, and this is just an initial step of a generation of work that needs to take place; but I am encouraged every day as multiple leaders, entrepreneurs and investors speak to me about their interest in the city.
What inspires your commitment to contributing to Detroit’s revitalization?
Aronoff: Detroit’s history. How can a city whose past is so critical to the story of America be left to deteriorate? I don’t know what the final “vision” for Detroit will be — if there is one — but I’m hopeful that it has its share of new ideas and energy — mixed in with a healthy dose of classic Detroit influence.
Davidoff: I have always been and will always be a Detroiter. As Deloitte’s Michigan managing partner, I have a precious opportunity and a serious responsibility to leverage the power of that seat to cause positive change and to inspire others to do the same. My 12 years serving the Jewish Federation [of Metropolitan Detroit] taught me about stewardship, and all I do today is built around a core belief and the conviction that Detroit will once again be one of the preferred American cities to live, work and play.
Provost: As a Michigander, I have seen the changes in our city and the many challenges that Detroiters continue to face. As the third largest bank headquartered in Michigan, Talmer Bancorp and its family of banks, Talmer Bank and Trust and Talmer West Bank, are community banks. At the beginning of the year, we acquired our first bank in the city of Detroit, so our commitment makes even more sense. We know we can’t just be about our bottom line — we need to both support and be an integral part of the communities where we live and work.
Staebler: I was born in Midtown, went to elementary school for several years in Midtown, spent more than a decade in the private sector helping to start and grow businesses, spent a decade in the public sector. Being at Wayne State University is very much like coming home, so it’s incredibly rewarding. The trend that excites me is there are so many things happening. The catchphrase around the office is that the next big thing is a thousand little things. There are lots and lots of people, leaders, residents, neighbors, friends, activists and entrepreneurs who are taking initiative to improve the city. It’s very inspiring to see so many that are doing so much to improve the city; examples include new businesses, community gardens and efforts to clear blight.
Davidoff: As the largest professional services firm in Michigan, we’re leading on many fronts. From recruiting talent from Michigan universities and providing rewarding career opportunities that encourage these young professionals to stay in Michigan, to serving our state’s most important clients, to providing leadership through corporate citizenship, we are making a difference in moving the great state of Michigan forward.
Provost: We are very aware that as a community bank we have a mission to support those communities in which our employees live and work. For four years now, we have been a title sponsor of the Detroit Free Press/Talmer Bank Marathon — an event that has a tremendous economic impact on the city.
Recently, Talmer Bank announced its support of Mayor Duggan’s plan to help revitalize and rebuild Detroit. So we are excited to have the opportunity to partner with the city of Detroit and the Detroit Land Bank Authority to increase homeownership and vitality in the Marygrove neighborhood.
Talmer Bank has committed $1 million to this program. Homeowners can receive up to $25,000 in forgivable grants to help with renovation costs when they buy homes in the Marygrove neighborhood. The grants will be forgiven at the rate of 20 percent per year that the buyer continues to live in the home, up to five years.
Aronoff: Through our work with small business, D:hive Detroit has had more than 400 small business come through our “BUILD” training program, which has grown into a suite of related programs and will be branching out as its own organization (“Build Institute”). The small businesses we’ve worked with are growing up into path-blazers in the city, which is tremendously rewarding.
Staebler: Wayne State University has a lot of great assets — spending, land, purchasing power, intellectual property and research — a quarter billion dollars of research activity a year. In addition, WSU has millions of visitors on campus each year and thousands of professors coming to campus each week.
Midtown has double the population per density of the city on average. With Wayne State University, the Midtown community becomes much denser. Over 60 new businesses have opened up in Midtown over the last few years. Midtown has a much safer climate today and that provides greater confidence to businesses that open up shop or are considering expanding.
We are proud to coordinate, communicate and collaborate with all of the other players in the economic development arena — including Henry Ford Hospital, Bedrock and city government. We also use our academic ability to promote the Detroit Orientation Institute and teach courses to better educate individuals about where the city has been and where we are going.
We can also be a neutral place because we are an academic institution and can challenge, probe and question leaders in an academic setting and create a forum for leaders from various backgrounds to discuss serious issues and answer questions relevant for residents
Going forward, how can Detroit tell a better story to the national business community about economic development opportunities here?
What is the most important change you’d envision for Detroit post-bankruptcy?
Aronoff: The city’s regulatory process for businesses trying to set up shop. In connection with the city’s post-bankruptcy plan, it has committed to investing $1.5 billion in retaining programs that do a variety of things, including attracting and retaining residents and businesses to foster growth and redevelopment. I’m hopeful some of that investment is directed at reforming and streamlining the permit process and regulatory systems to make life easier for entrepreneurs.
How do you believe economic development leaders should “quantify” the successes of their initiatives?
Davidoff: Jobs. Jobs. Jobs.
Staebler: At a macro level, we’re looking at things like new businesses, investment dollars, occupancy rates, number of new visitors, media hits and the attention we’re bringing to Midtown. Also important are the partnerships we’re promoting for businesses to access universities resources and the federal dollars coming in to the city for research and grant money.
Aronoff: I like the mayor’s metric: “Is the population increasing?” People are the lifeblood of a city, and I think that metric should be used to measure all aspects of the city’s plans: public safety, city systems, neighborhood services and economic development.
What is the greatest change you’d envision for Detroit post-bankruptcy?
Staebler: I’m optimistic there will be additional reasons to invest in Detroit’s city services. Mayor Duggan talks about being judged on population gain. If the standard of living gets better, then residents will see they are getting more services and getting a better bang for the buck. There is still a question of whether Detroit can uphold the promises they’ve made. It will take another few years to do the hard work and confront the very serious concerns of residents.
What is your advice to other leaders wanting to become involved in promoting economic development in Detroit?
Aronoff: Don’t ever stop listening. Listen to people who have worked on projects that resemble yours or have enjoyed victories or endured defeats you can learn from. People underestimate how powerful and resourceful Detroit’s community of existing grassroots business and community leaders can be.
Are there any leaders in Detroit’s economic development you particularly admire?
Provost: There are many who come to mind. One is Mayor Mike Duggan. His mission to rebuild Detroit is inspiring. Another person is U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen — he has been and continues to be a key player in Detroit’s financial restructuring.
Staebler: Eugene Driker [who serves on the Board of Governors at Wayne State University] would be my nominee for the Congressional Medal of Honor. The work he’s been doing has been nothing less than phenomenal. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his incredible work. Both of the Drikers [Elaine and Eugene] are giants in the city.
By Adam Finkel, Special to the Jewish News