Staging a comeback

April 26, 2012

"I believe Detroit is too big to fail. We must bail out Main Street, and so we need an all-hands-on-deck approach to help us turn the city around," said an impassioned community activist at a Detroit Financial Review Board meeting in March. The governor-appointed review board had just declared a financial state of emergency, while city and state officials played tug-o-war over a consent agreement that might—or might not—keep Detroit from bankruptcy.

Few would disagree that, even in economic distress, the city is worth saving. The question is how. If Detroit is to change its fate from casualty to comeback, what are some of the long-term policy solutions that might bolster revitalization?

In winter 2012, Rowan Miranda, Ford School faculty member and associate vice president for finance at the U-M, led the first "Detroit Policy Workshop," an eight-week graduate-level course. The class examined the city's problems and what caused them, and then explored the solutions that Detroiters, the business community, policymakers, and public managers are proposing to help the city recover and thrive.

Miranda often poses problems as questions—a habit that bridges his multiple roles as teacher and policymaker. "What policy solutions are being offered? What are the efforts to re-imagine Detroit? Some people are proponents of 'rightsizing'—so how do you get to a city that is both vibrant and much smaller?"


Miranda City

Rowan Miranda (fourth from right) and his "Detroit Policy Workshop" students visit Pittsburgh to speak with business and policy leaders about the city's comeback.

Modeled after the Ford School's International Economic Development Program (IEDP), the workshop covered such topics as mayoral leadership, service delivery, government reform, regionalism, and the role of the media.

Graduate students then went into the "field" and met with city, county, and state decisionmakers in Detroit and on campus, including: general manager of the City of Detroit General Services Department, Janet Anderson, who oversees the city's business operations; editor and columnist Nolan Finley of The Detroit News; Compuware founder, Peter Karmanos, Jr.; Charity Hicks of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, which operates D-Town Farm; Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans; and Dave Blaszkiewicz, head of the Downtown Detroit Partnership and Invest Detroit. "I wanted them to apply skills to real problems," Miranda says, "to interact with policy practitioners, as well as study solutions from elsewhere and think about how to tailor them to Detroit."

"This course was about making an effort to engage with the community," says Alexandra Citrin (MSW/MPP '12), a workshop participant. "My personal experience with Detroit has been with the southwest youth community. The course taught me that issues are broader, more complex, and that we need a unifying vision."

Miranda also wanted students to tap into a growing current of excitement in Detroit that in recent years has ushered in commercial development projects, an expanded tech corridor, and urban agriculture. "Cities coping with financial and economic challenges have found a way to bring disparate elements of government, business, labor, and community interests into a coalition—maybe an uneasy one—but one that still improves the ability to make tough decisions."

Pittsburgh: A Post-Industrial Case Study

A workable solution in one locale, however, may or may not translate into workable solutions elsewhere. Miranda encouraged students to see Detroit within the wider context of urban policy and the future of cities. He chose as the workshop's case study and counterpoint Pittsburgh—a city he served as budget director from 1994–96—which is currently being hailed as an honest-to-goodness post-industrial comeback.

The course was structured to allow students to take an optional spring break trip to Pittsburgh. About ten students made the trip with Miranda and met with business and policy leaders such as former Mayor Tom Murphy; Yarone Zober, who chairs the Urban Redevelopment Authority; and current County Controller Chelsa Wagner. "Why not choose a city," Miranda asks, "that more and more is viewed as a post-industrial economy that is emerging from the ashes?"

Once the center of America's steel industry, Pittsburgh—like Detroit—saw its manufacturing base evaporate by the 1980s, and the city that boasted a population of nearly 700,000 two generations ago steadily lost residents and spiraled into economic crisis. That Pittsburgh bears little resemblance to the city today, however.

It's much smaller at just over 300,000 residents—and not entirely out of the woods—but Pittsburgh's post-industrial economy has shifted to healthcare, education, finance, and technology, and is steadily growing. Indeed, Pittsburgh fared the recent recession better than most American cities, maintaining a stable housing market and adding jobs.

"There isn't a blueprint. Detroit can't do exactly Pittsburgh," observes workshop participant Perry Zielak (MPP '12). "There are lessons, though." Workshop participants were charged with analyzing a key policy issue and making actionable policy recommendations. Zielak and his partners focused on regional cooperation. "Were there specific areas," they asked, "that could cooperate or consolidate?"

They focused on the Detroit public health department, which is currently at the center of an investigation into the alleged mismanagement of state and federal grants. Zielak's recommendation entails seeking out ways for the city's public health department to leverage the assets of the Wayne County health department. "We wanted to see how they could potentially merge together and share resources, with the county bearing the lion's share of the financial responsibility," he said.

Citrin also travelled to Pittsburgh and agrees that the cities have significant differences. "Can the strategies used in Pittsburgh be scaled to work in Detroit?" she asks. Pittsburgh has multiple world-class universities, while Detroit has experienced a so-called brain drain. Citrin's solution would pair resource-rich institutions, such as U-M, with city partners in education, healthcare, business, and the community to leverage existing relationships, attract companies to the area, and, ultimately, improve the local labor force.

"Studying Detroit is a great opportunity for Michigan faculty and students," Miranda says, thinking about the big picture. "If we can craft policy solutions to Detroit's challenges, there's definitely hope for cities."

Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Spring 2012 State & Hill here.

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