Detroit’s future has never been more uncertain. The unemployment and poverty rates are the highest among major cities. Much of the business class is gone. It will take an extraordinary coordinated effort to break from the status quo and reinvent the city.
From a historical perspective, Detroit became one of the primary destinations for a massive movement of immigrants after World War I, including blacks from the South. An abundance of auto-related factory jobs and decent pay was the ticket to gain entry into the workforce, attain a desirable middle-class lifestyle and raise a family. Detroit was the gateway for hope and opportunity — a symbol of the American promise and dream.
Much of the progress has receded in the Detroit we see today. The perception and the reality is a city with a declining standard of living, burgeoning debt, deteriorating neighborhoods, gratuitous crime and an empty job market. If economic ruin is an unacceptable option, Detroit will have to harvest a collective and realistic vision of its strengths, weaknesses and needs.
A fertile field for business development and growth requires something rarely seen in the city – an intelligent strategic game plan. One of the basic ingredients for business success is a safe environment and a responsive government. All the economic inducements in the world won’t be enough to attract investment, enterprise and new job energy if the streets are unclean and unsafe.
A thriving Detroit is also contingent on political stability. Currently, a debt-ridden city government is on the brink of insolvency. Opportunities to make a fresh determination of what services the city should and should not be providing have been squandered. Add mismanagement and corruption to high taxes and a shrinking tax base, and the extent of the city’s despair puts hope on hold.
Only a unifying purpose and direction will usher in a return to the vanishing tradition of public-private cooperation. That means government, corporate and community leaders must submerge their diverse and sometimes competing interests. Corporate/business leaders shouldn’t have to sulk on the sidelines and complain about not having a voice in the political and economic decision-making process. Investment capital will take root and stay home if residents view business as an ally rather than an adversary
Key to any dynamic turnaround will be astute political leadership that figures out that for the city to become attractive, and the tax base to regenerate, Detroit has to compete with business destinations near and far. The extent to which the city helps existing companies grow will be another major component. Streamlining of economic support systems – licensing and regulation red tape – is an imperative.
Cities that subscribe to a pro-business philosophy have corporate leaders that feel free to bring together developers and investors and get them to endorse a visionary civic blueprint. They also help provide the talent and skills to get developments on track. Citizen groups, educators, financial institutions and foundations rally around a broad economic vision of the public good. Government generally delivers high quality essential services and rolls out the welcome mat.
Detroit will never return to the good old days when it made its mark as the automotive mecca. That doesn’t mean the moral legacy of Detroit should be one of indifference. The last several decades of disinvestment from the city are a painful reminder that those who champion the failed status quo hasten the city’s free fall into a municipal wasteland.