Detroit has had its share of bad ideas. Construct a nearly windowless convention center on the river? Check. Build an office complex that looks like a silo, isolating workers from the downtown? Done that.
So where do you place an idea of developing an investment district on the city’s East side? It involves an airport, an outlet to the river, rail lines, areas for industrial development and plenty of space for retail and residential growth. Kinda intriguing, yes?
It’s the kind of idea that, on paper, looks pretty feasible. That is why the dreams of builder Rodney M. Lockwood Jr. are interesting. Granted, he comes with some baggage (he came up with the Commonwealth of Belle Isle book/idea; more on that later). But he, like many business leaders in Metro Detroit, is investing his hours, money and expertise in an effort to reimagine what Detroit could be in the near future. And that’s not all bad.
Let’s back up a minute. Lockwood was one of six speakers Thursday morning at the Reason Foundation event, “Revitalizing Detroit After Bankruptcy” at the Hotel Crowne Plaza Pontchartrain Detroit. (Disclosure: I used to work with moderator Shikha Dalmia at The Detroit News, but we are both nearly nine years out of those jobs.)
The event’s purpose was to expose the audience to some of the nationwide reforms and programs that have worked in other cities in a crisis like Detroit. Other suggestions came from cities with success stories, including Houston, where job growth is said to have grown 20 percent over the past decade because of no income tax, little zoning restrictions and an inviting environment for immigration.
The Reason Foundation and many of the guests on the panel are described politically as Libertarian. That translates, according to its website, as “the values of individual freedom and choice, limited government and market-friendly policies.” Although the majority was from Reason, the roundtable also included a speaker from Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
The event’s purpose seemed largely to offer concrete examples of where other cities have privatized services, outsourced contracts and found ways to monetize the everyday activities of municipal government. The overreaching suggestion for Detroit went something like this: Detroit is a bankrupt city with a horrid balance sheet. After bankruptcy, Detroit will be a city with a decent balance sheet. And that offers many, many options and opportunities. How to capture those opportunities – and stay out of future bankruptcies – are topics worthy of debate.
“(Detroit) cannot afford to do business as usual,” Dalmia said in her opening remarks. It needs to change for many reasons, but the most important is that it must create policies and practices that benefit residents – like real cities do.
For example, Detroit was recently ticketing drivers for Uber, the popular “ride share” service. This practice is unreasonable because it limits not only these drivers’ employment opportunities, but it also limits the services available to Detroit-based workers and city residents, noted Anthony Randazzo, who among other titles is director of economic policy for the Reason Foundation.
The hour-long panel discussion and following question-and-answer session covered a number of topics, including how Detroit can look to Houston for ways to attract immigration and well-educated workers, New York for its privatization and Pontiac, Mich., for its efforts to contract services with other cities to save money, create income and improve services.
But of all the presentations, Lockwood’s gained the most (virtual) ink and interest. He proposed the Jefferson Community Investment District, which would take the area from Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport to the riverfront and turn it into an aeroplex of sorts. This would be an investment partnership between the city, its creditors, so-called “ homesteaders” and residents.
This public-private partnership would require $3 billion in investments. It would require the city’s creditors to willingly take a piece of this 15-square-mile area adjacent to Grosse Pointe Park instead of cash payments. It would require the city’s agreement. And let’s not get started on how difficult it would be to get the residents on board (in Detroit and “The Bubble” of the Pointes), expand the airport’s runway or figure out the rest of the details that go with this district. It’s hugely complicated, messy and would take years to achieve.
But, in conversation after his presentation, Lockwood was affable, intelligent, well spoken and earnest. He rolled his eyes a bit at the flack he took over his idea of transforming Belle Isle into a kind of Singapore or Hong Kong. So he understands that his ideas, albeit sincere, may come off as a bit grandiose or, let’s face it, downright odd.
But he has taken the time to research the area; he knows the land is affordable and plentiful. He has brought in consultants and partners to discuss the options. He knows people who would be willing to back him up. He has the ear of city government in that they’re willing to listen to him. As chairman and CEO of Lockwood Cos., he’s got his own money and experience to share.
Maybe such a plan cannot work for either financial or political reasons. Lockwood is at least trying. He left Bingham Farms and, arguably, a comfortable life in the suburbs to come downtown. He has dreams for Detroit. And that, like any idea, is worth investigating. It will be interesting to see the reaction to this Jefferson District – and to see what happens to Detroit beyond this bankruptcy. Regardless of your political leanings, you gotta agree: Detroit really has nowhere to go but up.