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Acknowledging Detroit’s problems was first step to fixing them

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Any way you look at it, Detroit is a pretty interesting place.  It’s a dramatic, living story with surprising twists and turns and stomach churning ups and downs, a birthplace of innovation and invention – think cars, tanks, music and pizza.

Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr

Governor Snyder and Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr

Detroit is many different things, some very good, some just good enough, and others not very good at all.  Unfortunately  many metro Detroiters who have been burned by the city in the past or heard from others who were,  still have a tendency to focus on the ‘not very good’ side of the story… which doesn’t help the not very good to get better.

I, on the other hand, one who has admittedly been accused more than once of suffering from acute rose colored glass-itis when it comes to Detroit, tend to look at the upside potential where the glass is half-full and the grass (assuming the snow ever melts) is actually getting greener.

Mayor Duggan’s first State of the City address added a touch more rose to my view, and the things I read about and see happening around town almost daily help to keep my spirits high, even during this much too long thermal vortex of a winter.

It is an indisputable fact that Detroit is changing.  This change is an absolute necessity.  There was no other choice.  Reality has forced the city and the state to make the draconian moves needed for Detroit simply to survive.  After decades of being unwilling or unable to face reality, the hammer has come down hard and smashed everything the city was, or thought it was, clearing the way for what it must become.  Reality may suck, or bite, as they say, but for Detroit it was finally the only answer.  Look into your navel and drastically change what you’re doing.

Admit past mistakes.  File for bankruptcy.  Elect honest politicians.  Identify and blow out corruption.  Fix what’s broken and eliminate whatever can’t be fixed.  Clean up what’s dirty.  Work together.  Stop fixating on how great you were in the past and figure out what you have to do to be great in the future and start working toward it.

Admitting reality was the first step in Detroit’s recovery, sort of like it is in AA – “Admit you have a problem!” – but for the past six decades nobody seemed able to do so.  Then “one tough nerd” came along.   Give the Governor credit.  Like him or not, the bankruptcy and Emergency Manager seem to have been the right answers to jump start Detroit. Maybe the only answers.   They’re causing headaches and heartburn, to be sure, along with debates and demonstrations, but they’re also creating action.  Crushing debt is finally being addressed and possibly even offloaded.  Priorities are being set.  Focus is sharpening.  Hope is rising.

7_woodward holiday lights_woodward holiday lights_michiganexposures.blogspot.comThe Governor certainly isn’t alone in trying to create this change for the city.  Many would-be change agents have come before him – Peter Karmanos, Mike Ilitch, Dennis Archer, Edsel Ford, Roger Penske, Sue Mosey, Dan Gilbert and others.  They’ve all taken herculean swings at fixing Detroit.  They’ve invested their time, money and know-how and they’ve made a difference, but until the root problems were acknowledged and addressed – the debt, corruption, and flight out of the city – nothing meaningful could take root, lure others to the table and start to cause significant change.   Now significant change is starting to happen.

While Kevyn Orr is managing the bankruptcy, Mike Duggan is managing the city.  In my opinion it would be impossible to do both, or at least to do both effectively.  Orr can slug it out through the skirmishes of who owes what to whom, try to find a way to appease unhappy pensioners, and save the DIA’s art while Duggan finds ways to come up with funding for new buses, ambulances and police cars, ways to eliminate blight and clean up neighborhoods, and maybe even a way to start a new auto insurance business to give beleaguered car owners in the city a break.  There are definitely enough challenges to keep everybody busy.

Mayor Mike Duggan

Mayor Mike Duggan

Facing reality isn’t always easy and in Detroit’s case it obviously wasn’t.  But look at the early results.  Look what can happen once you acknowledge your situation, grab the bull by its horns and start to take action.  There are still huge hurdles to jump and landmines to navigate around for Detroit to begin a real recovery, but it’s starting to feel and look like progress.  While not everyone’s on the same team yet, or even the same page, the vision is coming into focus.   Kevyn Orr’s pledge to put the bankruptcy to bed and get out of town by September meshes nicely with Mayor Duggan’s efforts to turn on the lights and improve public safety to encourage metro Detroiters back into town.

Most urban experts agree that what’s happening in Detroit is just the tip of an iceberg that will very likely, and very soon, hit other cities that have overspent budgets and borrowed beyond their ability to repay, most notably Chicago.  (Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Chicago’s credit rating this week citing the city’s unfunded pension liabilities.  The rating on $8.3 billion of Chicago debt is now Baa1, just three notches above junk bond status.)Those cities should be watching what happens here in Detroit, once again the first into – and hopefully the first out of – financial mayhem.

Unless you’re forced to take action like Detroit was, it all starts with swallowing your civic pride and openly acknowledging your real problems.  That’s a hard swallow, especially for politicians.  But you can’t fix the problems without first acknowledging them.

Forced into its dire situation or not, I believe Detroit is actually lucky to be the first urban test case and be where the city is in the process.  It’s been ugly and hurtful to a whole lot of individuals and organizations and we’re a long way from claiming victory. But we’re still only in the first quarter of the game and we’ve inched our way out of touchback territory.  There’s no turning back now.

Bud Liebler is the owner of The Whitney

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