There’s a poem written years ago called “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten.” In many ways one stanza sums how the building blocks for Detroit’s resurgence were put in place.
When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
It’s about the partnerships, the collaboration and the willingness to count on and trust others we learned when we were five. It’s those same principles foundations, businesses, government, unions, neighborhoods and others embraced as they worked together to bring Detroit out of bankruptcy and continue its resurgence.
It’s paying off.
Nearly three-quarters of business leaders polled for the Kresge Foundation’s Detroit Reinvestment Index believe Detroit is a good place to invest. Nearly 85 percent of them are confident Detroit can be a great city again, and that number goes to 95 percent if you just count the top CEOs polled.
The business leaders describe Detroit as “a city in economic recovery,” says Rip Rapson, president and CEO, Kresge Foundation, when sharing results of the survey.
The study also revealed something astonishing to most of us.
Despite Detroit’s emergence from bankruptcy in late 2014, only 16 percent of the national business leaders polled are aware the city is out of bankruptcy.
“News flash, we are,” Rapson says. “The very unlikely mix of foundations and unions, a museum and municipal and state government, came together to pull Detroit through an existential crisis that could have catapulted a once-great city into a decade-long death spiral of litigation, investor uncertainty, and government paralysis.
“The rapid and consensual resolution of that crisis was a pre-condition to all else. It put us in the starting blocks and began erasing what had theretofore been indelible images of entropy and apocalypse too long associated with Detroit,” he says.
All that said, there are several challenges to overcome, like crime, a dysfunctional school system, a lack of skilled workers, the absence of regional mass transportation and not enough housing downtown.
Detroit has made progress in improving safety, but still has a long way to go. According to the results of the study, 80 percent of the business leaders believe a low crime rate is essential for success, but only 52 percent rate Detroit as “excellent” or “good” on crime.
City government has dramatically improved under Mayor Duggan’s administration, but again, there is much work to be done.
“We continue to work in the shadow of a long period of political dysfunction and corroded municipal services,” Rapson says. “So, at the same time we take satisfaction in the very good news in this survey, we recognize that we have to be clear-eyed about the challenges it spells out and the need to take them head-on as we move forward.”
Moving forward to fix the Detroit Public Schools system can’t happen soon enough, says Stephen Henderson, Detroit Free Press editorial page editor, who part of the panel convened to discuss the results of the survey.
“You can’t send your kid around the corner to school anymore and think that is going to work,” he says, emphasizing that the number of children attending DPS schools continues to drop, and many are opting for charter schools.
Jobs are also essential, and so is the mass transportation needed to get to them.
Detroit’s transformation is primed to be an engine for job growth, says panelist Quintin E. Primo III, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Chicago-based Capri Capital Partners. Companies such as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Quicken Loans, General Motors and others have brought an estimated 150,000 jobs into the city, he points out.
The catch is there are only 20,000 units of housing available, or a 7.5 to 1 ratio. That compares to Los Angeles, which has about 200,000 people working downtown with 40,000 units available, or a ratio of 5 to 1. “Detroit’s market is underserved,” Primo says. “There are few units for millennials and empty nesters to live here.”
Finding living spaces for millennials “who want different things than their parents had” is key to Detroit’s future, says panelist Jennifer Vey, a fellow with the Centennial Scholar Initiative and co-director of the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Initiative on Innovation and Placemaking at the Brookings Institution. “It is a re-evolution of ‘city-ness.’”
The economy, in general, and Detroit’s specifically, is becoming more dominated by information technology, which demands more collaboration than in the past, she says. Millennials want and demand that kind of closeness, so quickly creating enough new apartments, condominiums and homes that interest them is essential to get them to stay in Detroit and help grow the economy.
Today, downtown Detroit is at 99 percent residential capacity and real estate development firms are working feverishly to get more on line.
That’s all well and good, says Henderson, since right now about 80 percent of the people who work downtown don’t live downtown. Many are ready and willing when the units open up – and able, depending on the price.
Henderson points out, though, there very difficult social issues that must be overcome. About 30 percent of black men in Detroit are unemployed and one in three has a felony conviction, making finding work even more difficult.
His suggestion is to work on both the social and innovation tracks separately and then bring them together.
Many organizations, such as Southwest Solutions, the Greening of Detroit and Focus: HOPE and many others, are working hard to do just that.
Part of the answer is getting more and more businesses to return to downtown Detroit and the neighborhoods.
“We must pivot in to the neighborhoods and use them to anchor institutions to keep and use the land,” says Rapson. “We have 40 square miles of vacant land (in Detroit). That can be a detriment or it can be an asset. It can be used for 10 million things. We have no excuse not to be innovative.”
Those “10 million” things could be childhood centers, parks, coffee houses, stores – any place where people can gather, share thoughts and collaborate to make their neighborhoods better. Those gathering places will also attract young people, and some empty nesters as well.
“I see a transformation taking place in Detroit,” says panelist Sandy Baruah, president of the Detroit Regional Chamber. “We are not behind.”
That said, let’s go back to the poem.
Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that … And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.”
Detroit is producing the seeds, and Detroiters and outside businesses are looking for places to plant them.
– Editor’s note: Here’s a little background on the business leaders polled:
- 91 percent have a connection to Detroit
- 45 percent have business operations and investments in Detroit
- 62 percent have visited Detroit
- All are senior leaders with influence over global, high-level decisions at mid- to large-size companies with at least 250 employees. The survey was done in November 2015.