Editor’s Note: Prior to, during and after the upcoming Detroit Regional Chamber’s Detroit Policy Conference, Detroit Unspun/TheHUB, Comcast and WWJ Newsradio 950 will bring you stories that showcase the transformation of our city’s neighborhoods.
By E. B. Allen
If there’s one thing that Detroit Regional Chamber CEO and President Sandy Baruah hoped the 2016 Detroit Policy Conference would clarify, it is that his organization and its members are deeply invested in Detroit, its revitalization and its neighborhoods.
Yes, you read that last word correctly. Baruah and the Chamber drove that message into the public eye with February’s Policy Conference, which was devoted entirely to discussing jobs, development, investment and prosperity across the city’s neighborhoods.
“The neighborhoods are critical,” Baruah told TheHUB during an exclusive interview at the Conference. “We’re not going to be a great state, we’re not going to be a great region, we’re not going to be a great city until our neighborhoods are really prosperous.
“We’ve seen some great progress” in areas like downtown, Midown and Corkton, Baruah said. “But most of our historic neighborhoods, primarily in the city of Detroit, are still struggling. They’re suffering from a lot of different issues. And we need to resolve those issues.”
It seemingly is a change; for some, the Detroit Regional Chamber might have been seen as isolated from Detroit’s neighborhoods. Downtown has been its domain, some might say. There is some truth to that; for more than 100 years the Detroit Regional Chamber has influenced government, business and local collaboration in areas that impact boardroom and policy decisions for Detroit on a daily basis.
But, as a power broker whose membership includes a sterling roster of stakeholders, the Chamber is broadening its scope deeper into the community. From initiatives like its yearly scholarship program for Detroit youth, its continued involvement in public education, transportation and insurance issues, to the recently held fifth annual Detroit Policy Conference, the Chamber is extending its public focus to include interests beyond downtown’s border.
As part of extended coverage from the 2016 Detroit Policy Conference, Baruah spoke extensively about the importance of making local neighborhoods more stable and viable.
“When people ask why is the Detroit Regional Chamber focused on the neighborhoods, the answer is really simple: It is because we live here too,” Baruah said. “The health of our neighborhoods directly impacts the health of our economy.
“The more prosperous our neighborhoods are, the more prosperous our economy will be,” Baruah explained. “When you think about, it 70 percent of our economy is based on consumer spending. If the folks in our neighborhoods or any other place of our society don’t have money to spend, then our economy is not prosperous. This is all one ecosystem; the entire ecosystem has to be healthy, not just one part of it.”
At the core of revitalization and prosperity are racial and economic inclusion, Baruah says. The goal to create a welcoming, cosmopolitan atmosphere for all people should be a priority, he adds. Equally important to welcoming people of diverse origins and cultures is generating growth opportunities for people of all professional and educational backgrounds, particularly retraining Detroiters to get jobs that require technological and academic readiness, he says.
Developing more prosperous career paths for young people and ongoing adult education programs can increase the collective skill level in depressed parts of the city.
“That’s a heavy lift, but we need to work on it,” Baruah said. “No matter what your color is, no matter what your gender, regardless of income, you need a safe place to live, work and play.”
Among other long-term challenges, Chamber-supported issues including improved financial literacy and regional transit can help create customers who are ready to spend, attracting potential neighborhood-based businesses and corporate entities, he adds.
“The one question that none of us really knows what the answer is, regarding the neighborhoods, is what is the right policy prescription? What will make a long-term, sustainable difference in our neighborhoods? Because, at the end of the day, you and I both know that government and philanthropy can be useful tools for catalyst activity, but government and philanthropy can’t sustain development of investment in a neighborhood, or anywhere, for that matter.
“It needs to be market-based. So what is the market-based answer? People in the neighborhoods are concerned, saying, ‘Listen, why is all the investment going downtown? What about us in the neighborhood?’ That’s a fair question, but the answer is really simple: Businesses will invest where they can get a return, where they know that if they put some money in here, it will be a sustainable operation, that they can get money back from it. How do we make that happen in the neighborhoods? It’s a very, very difficult proposition.”
Among the Chamber’s target numbers for stimulating neighborhood and citywide revitalization are lower employment rates and greater per capita income.
“You could just raise the employment rate and still do that with lower-wage jobs,” says Baruah. “We want rising incomes and a lowering of the unemployment rate. We call it a balanced score card.”
A combination of both foreign and domestic investment, initiatives that support city and county government, and philanthropic collaborations are all components the Chamber encourages, to contribute balance among Detroiters.
Adds Baruah, “It’s all about alignment.”