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Tom Walsh: Optimism about Detroit seizes Mackinac Policy Conference

From: Detroit Free Press

By Tom Walsh

May 29, 2014

MACKINAC ISLAND — Improbable as it may seem, optimism about the city of Detroit — bankrupt, blighted Detroit — is running higher among Michigan’s business and civic leaders than anytime I can remember in a generation or more.

The sense of growing confidence about the city’s future is palpable, even infectious. It’s everywhere I turn among the 1,600 attendees at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference this week, where I’ve been watching and talking with state and metro Detroit political and business leaders.

After decades of fits and starts, false renaissances and disappointing setbacks, the new and old guard up here feel this time is different. They believe Gov. Rick Snyder and Mayor Mike Duggan are the right kind of measurement-and-accountability guys who can bring home real change in the Motor City. Some of the Mackinac faithful have been attending this conference for decades, and they finally believe it’s true.

What’s driving this nearly unbridled optimism? It’s really a convergence of five things.

■ Detroit’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy is moving steadily toward a conclusion that can give the dysfunctional city a fresh financial start.

■ Private-sector entrepreneurs Dan Gilbert, Roger Penske, the Ilitch family and others are pouring passion and money into the city, just as the region’s auto industry bounded back.

■ Philanthropic foundations, locally and nationally based, have funneled huge sums into Detroit and are pledging more to help the industry exit bankruptcy.

■ Snyder has faced up to the long-festering Detroit crisis and taken controversial, politically unpopular steps to deal it.

■ Duggan has been a force of nature since taking office in January, managing to get streetlights turned on, EMS response times down and a massive anti-blight offensive coordinated — even though the city is largely under the legal control of emergency manager Kevyn Orr.

Duggan himself, in an energetic speech here Tuesday, began by framing Detroit’s challenge in simple, personal terms. “I’m 55 years old, and the population of the city of Detroit has declined every single year I’ve been alive,” he said.

“Every day,” he added, “we focus on what we can do to reverse the population decline. It governs every single decision we make. We do not have a future if we don’t start growing.”

His fervor is tempered by a sense of reality and a fanatical devotion to data and measurement of progress.

Detroit’s population is still dropping, although the rate has slowed. Detroit’s delivery of city services is still substandard, but improving.

Duggan rattled off numbers about abandoned houses being saved and sold at auction to new owners; about EMS response times dropping from 18 minutes in January to less than 13 last week; about adding 6,000 new functioning streetlights since February.

That emphasis on measurement and accountability is music to the ears of the chamber of commerce crowd. So it’s no surprise that the Mackinac conference crowd is encouraged by the signs of turnaround.

Duggan makes the difference
For the past 40 years, the terms of previous Detroit mayors and Michigan governors have been marked by episodic accomplishments and brief illusionary spurts of progress.

Mayor Coleman Young kept the Red Wings hockey team from fleeing to the suburbs, worked with the Ilitch family on fixing the Fox Theatre and bringing Little Caesars headquarters downtown. He expanded Cobo Center, ushering in the North American Auto Show as a premier global event.

Mayor Dennis Archer persuaded Peter Karmanos to bring Compuware downtown, and Campus Martius Park, Comerica Park and Ford Fields were developed on his watch.

Kwame Kilpatrick’s first term as mayor saw General Motors and the Kresge Foundation lead a massive redevelopment of the Detroit riverfront.

But until now, Detroit’s population, its neighborhoods and its schools have continued to erode. As tax revenue stalled or dwindled, so, too, did city services.

So what makes the Mackinac crowd this week so upbeat, so seemingly convinced that this time Detroit’s long slide may be ending, even reversing?

Certainly the prospect of a successful bankruptcy exit and a clean balance sheet is important — and there is a general understanding that the Chapter 9 exit could be derailed, or delayed, by still-simmering conflicts over the water system or a “no” vote by retirees on Orr’s bankruptcy plan.

What’s different now than last year, though, is Duggan, a man who does not quietly accept no for an answer.

Beth Niblock, Detroit’s new chief information technology officer, found that out after twice rejecting Detroit’s overtures to hire her away from the same post in Louisville, Ky.

When Duggan called her personally on the phone, he told her he’d never been to Louisville, asked her what it was like, if it had any good restaurants. She said she was yakking away when Duggan jumped off the phone for a minute, asking her to hold on.

When he came back on the line, Duggan told her he had made a 7 p.m. dinner reservation at a Louisville restaurant a night or two later, and asked her to join him. Flummoxed, she agreed — and after four or five hours with him, she was hooked.