Panelists consider the challenge of blending ‘two’ Detroits
MACKINAC ISLAND -- It's a familiar story: Detroit is a city of contrasts, new investments and optimism, an influx of young creative professionals and independent business owners.
It's also a city of blinding poverty and violence, of governmental dysfunction and severe financial distress.
How to connect the two cities is a challenge civic and political leaders must meet.
The Wednesday panel at the Detroit Regional Chamber's Mackinac Policy Conference, "Detroit: A Tale of Two Cities," addressed some of the problems the city faces -- as panelists discussed how Detroit's wins can become widespread successes for the city.
A major new investment in the city is coming in the form of a Whole Foods market, located in Detroit's Midtown, set to open next year.
Coming to Detroit made sense, said Whole Foods panelist Red Elk Banks, executive operations coordinator for the high-end grocer.
"On some levels, it's really easy for us, because we look at where people are talking about food," Banks said.
Detroit has a strong food community, he said, with fixtures like Eastern Market, one of the longest-running open-air markets in the country; the rise of urban agriculture organizations like Greening of Detroit; interest in locally grown and sourced food and local artisanal food producers like Avalon International Breads; and house-made cheeses at restaurant Traffic Jam & Snug.
"What do you see? We see our customers," Banks said. "Those are the big factors that drove that decision, but the final piece of that was really about community and collaboration. As we started talking to Detroit, Detroit started talking back to us. We had to engage in the community in a respectful fashion."
In cities like Baltimore and Washington, D.C., Whole Foods led the revival of distressed urban areas.
Panelist Anthony Williams, the former mayor of Washington, D.C., said that the large Whole Foods store on P Street in the district is in a neighborhood that was once home to prostitution and other criminal activity. Now, it's filled with coffee shops, restaurants and bars -- in fact, Detroit Regional Chamber President and CEO Sandy Baruah owns a home there.
Williams said that he used to beg retailers like Wal-Mart to site a store in the district, but said now the city is approached by stores like Wal-Mart and Target.
But to create widespread success, the city must meet certain goals, Williams said.
Settled expectations are important, panelists said. If you tell a business or a resident that a deal can get done in six months, make sure that's an accurate measure. Don't say three months and then extend the term.
And it's important to stop planning and get things done, Williams said.
"You know what people want, you know what basic needs are," he said. "What are the 10 things that show constituents there's a light on in the home? What are the 10 things you can do to show constituents that there's a light at the end of the tunnel, and it's not a train?"
To the public, Williams said, it's important for a mayor to project that he has the whole community's interests at heart.
"But behind the scenes, you have to prioritize," he said. "You're a fool if you don't prioritize, because you have to build from your strengths. ... I'm not saying be deceitful and disingenuous, but be smart."
At the same time, Williams said, a mayor has to be conscious of representing the community, not just running the government.
"When you're leading a city ... you're leading a community," he said. "In order to lead the community, you have to show you're running the government well, but running the government well is a necessary but not sufficient condition. You have to lead the broader community. You can't be trapped in an 18th century model of "government does this exclusively,' because you can't do this alone."
With a new consent agreement in place in Detroit that should help restructure government, it's important to stop squabbling and move forward, Williams said. A recent letter sent by the city's law department saying the consent agreement, which grants some powers of an emergency manager to Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, was "ridiculous," Williams said.
"You can't sign a consent agreement and at the same time have someone who is an ally say it's problematic and defective," Williams said. "It gets to the public trust part of this realm. How are people going to have confidence in working with you? ... This is a brutal reality. In order to get to a better place -- this is a great, iconic American city with a great future in the heart of every American -- but to get to that place, you can't diet while you eat, and you can't learn French while you sleep. You've got to confront reality and deal with it.
"Don't pull the Band-Aid off really, really slow, pull the damned Band-Aid off," he said.
Baruah, who also spoke on the panel, said that the next step for Detroit will be composed of a lot of little steps.
"It was referred to yesterday as elephant hunting, the big box or big employer that's going to bring in a thousand jobs," Baruah said. "I would much prefer to have a thousand employers hire one person apiece, so we'd have a broader employment base. Street by street, taking care of the lighting system, hygiene factors ..."
"I think it would be good to get beyond the commotion of the consent agreement," Williams said. "City leadership should come together, in my humble opinion, recognizing they have a really great asset and a governor who actually cares about the city, and use that as a lever to produce some real change."