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The Good News About Detroit

Bill Dodge / Sep 27 2013

For Release Friday, September 27, 2013

Bill DodgeIt’s time for an article that focuses on the good news about the City of Detroit and its surrounding communities in the greater Detroit region.

Thanks to the dedicated efforts of regional citizens – individuals from all sectors who think regionally and act cooperatively – a growing array of recent initiatives are addressing some of the Detroit region’s most pressing challenges.

The relatively new Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority is refurbishing Cobo Hall, the convention center, and using a regional hotel tax to keep it competitive in the future. Similarly, voters in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties passed two 10-year property tax levies, one in 2008 to keep the Detroit Zoo open and one last year to keep the world-renowned Detroit Institute of the Arts open.

A Regional Transit Authority has been created to coordinate and expand the region’s bus and transit services. It has the power to merge services and put a regional tax on the ballot to stabilize support for those critical services. Discussions are underway to lease the city’s Belle Isle Park to the state of Michigan to make critical improvements in this beloved facility.

None of those efforts has been easy, and all have seen setbacks along the way. However, they have saved regional assets that were helping stretch the City of Detroit’s financial capacity to the breaking point.

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) is often the behind-the-scenes ally in building those regional partnerships. Its staff has a sixth sense for identifying the opportunities for cooperation in a crisis and bringing seasoned public/private/nonprofit stakeholders together – with a new generation of young entrepreneurs – to pursue those opportunities.

SEMCOG also supports the concept of designing joint public services among groups of local governments, from joint purchasing agreements to joint police, fire and internet services. It has recruited a corps of seasoned experts from the public and private sectors and offers its services at no cost. It also maintains an impressive catalog of already-executed service agreements on its AgileGov website.

SEMCOG uses its role as the region’s transportation planning agency to help assure that the region has the capacity to move people and goods, seamlessly. Construction on the Woodward Avenue streetcar is about to begin. Rail cars and rail lines are being rehabilitated to connect Ann Arbor and Detroit, the region’s vital economic incubators, with commuter rail.

Maybe as partial recognition of SEMCOG’s growing importance, the City of Detroit has made paying its annual SEMCOG membership dues a high priority even in the midst of its financial challenges.

When the City of Detroit was riding high, it did not think it economically needed the rest of the region. And the rest of the region treated the City of Detroit as a competitor, unnecessary to the region’s economic success.

That thinking prevailed, even after the price being paid for separating the suburban “doughnut” from the central city “hole” was well-documented. In the last century, the National League of Cities was reporting that regions with larger income disparities between the “doughnut” and the “hole” were becoming less competitive than regions with smaller gaps. This was true not just for the central cities in those high-income-disparity regions; their suburbs were also losing ground to those in regions with smaller gaps.

Urban expert David Rusk attributed large income gaps to central city inelasticity. He found that central cities that could annex or consolidate with neighbors – that were elastic, such as Unigov in Indianapolis – were more competitive than those that could not – the inelastic cities, such as Detroit.

Rusk even raised the disturbing specter of regions reaching a point of no return if city incomes dropped below 70 percent of suburban incomes. That’s a tough standard, even in the region where I used to live, the Washington metro area. As of 2011, District of Columbia incomes were approximately two-thirds of those in the surrounding counties. City of Detroit incomes, however, are generally less than half those in the surrounding counties.

Let’s hope the cooperative initiatives above illustrate that attitudes are changing. Maybe more regional residents realize their jurisdictions are the limbs of one regional body. If so, the arms cannot waste time complaining about the legs, and vice-versa. Both need to focus their energies on keeping all parts of the body healthy.

Future cooperative initiatives must be even bolder, if the Detroit regional body is to become more elastic. Regional leaders and citizens could make a pledge to think regionally before acting locally. And they can call on SEMCOG to design ways to help them act cooperatively, such as pooling the financial incentives now used to encourage existing businesses to relocate within the region and investing them in new enterprises that benefit the whole region. And then sharing these benefits across all jurisdictions, especially the most needy.

And maybe most important, they can inspire the region’s children and grandchildren – the next generation of regional citizens – to heal the last of the racial sores inhibiting regional greatness.

Bill Dodge helps individuals, organizations and communities build their capacities to address tough regional challenges. He is former executive director of the National Association of Regional Councils and is writing a new book on regional charters. Reach him at columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to