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Panel’s keys to regional mindset: Public-private cooperation … and a little fear

From Crain’s Detroit Business

March 1, 2013

By Sherri Welch

Collaboration and regional thinking are necessary to protect and spur development of Southeast Michigan’s assets, members of a panel said Thursday at the second annual Detroit Policy Conference.

In some cases, such as with Detroit riverfront development, a clear need has arisen for private and philanthropic dollars to spur on a project.

But when it comes to other assets, such as Cobo Center and the Detroit Institute of Arts, it sometimes takes the fear of losing those assets to mobilize collaboration and regionalism, said participants in the panel session “Reimagining Detroit’s Assets: Leadership, Policy and a Strong Urban Core.”

The policy conference, held at MotorCity Casino Hotel in Detroit, drew 800 people or double the number who attended last year.

Ten years ago, there wasn’t really a Detroit riverfront to speak of, said Faye Alexander Nelson, president and CEO of the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, speaking as part of the session. The space along the Detroit River was primarily abandoned, and there was not much public access.

The conservancy formed 10 years ago aiming to open the waterfront to the public and spurring ancillary economic development. Over the past decade, the conservancy has completed three miles of the Detroit RiverWalk and put in place pavilions, plazas, parks, butterfly gardens, a café and carousel, among other amenities. Last summer, the conservancy launched its next phase of RiverWalk construction.

“We’ve had amazing success, … but we wouldn’t be here without a public-private partnership,” Nelson said. “Cities are really continuing to re-examine the issue of cost as it relates to operating … to pension obligations … they’re finding these public-private partnerships are very cost-positive.”

Likewise, the RiverWalk falls on land belonging to private owners and the city of Detroit, so the private and philanthropic sectors needed their collaboration, as well, Nelson said.

Before reopening a few years back after renovations and the reinstallation of its vast collection, the DIA Arts was marketing the collection in a way art historians thought appropriate, but it was primarily an intellectual exercise, Director Graham Beal said.

“What started off in my mind as rethinking art … shifted … into a museum that was about the visitor,” Beal said

“Without that transformation, … without turning museum into something the public felt it had ownership in, we could not have gone for the millage.”

Beal was referring to the millage the DIA secured from voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties last August.

Also helping spur passage of the millage was a strong and clear message that without the much-needed operating funds, the DIA would be forced to cut its programs or shut its doors entirely.

A similar fear arose with Cobo when news got out that automakers might take the North American International Auto Show elsewhere, said Larry Alexander, chairman of the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority and president of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Legislation put in place in 2009 created a five-member authority with representation from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties; the city of Detroit; and the state. Decisions required blanket agreement to proceed.

Unquestionably, fear over losing the auto show was one of the key reasons that the region was able to come together to create the Cobo authority, Alexander said.

Other cities such Chicago were saying they had more space and better centers.

“I think that drove the political leadership to come together and say we’ve got to make sure we don’t let our No. 1 auto industry (event) leave Detroit,” Alexander said. “And as a result, we now have a five-year agreement” for the auto show, which in turn helps attract other groups and events.

The Wayne County Airport Authority came together in 2002 amid fears of a state takeover of Detroit Metropolitan Airport after a state investigation and wide-ranging federal grand jury inquiry examining the administration of then-Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara and possible kickbacks, patronage and influence peddling and questionable construction contracts for the $1.2 billion McNamara Terminal.

The authority is represented by four Wayne County executive appointees, two appointed by the governor and one by the Wayne County Commission.

Today, under the direction of the authority, the airport is highly competitive and service-oriented, Airport Authority CEO Thomas Naughton said.

Metro serves about 150 nonstop destinations, 27 international destinations and 1,100 daily takeoffs and is Delta Air Lines‘ second-largest hub in the world.

That activity generates about $7.6 billion in economic impact for the region each year, Naughton said.

The authority’s board concentrates on what is in the best interests of the entire community and can plan beyond the next election cycle in support of its business plan, he said.