Dear L. Brooks Patterson: It’s 2014, Not 1994

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From reports online and conversations we’ve had with some of our contributors, we had to groan when we talked about what happened yesterday in Oakland County at the launch of tech248, an initiative designed by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson to accelerate the tech industry in Oakland County … and even more so at Patterson’s words.

It’s known that Patterson has a track record of being all for Oakland County. However, we found a bit of irony in the line..

“I’ll fight to keep you (companies) here in Oakland County … Are you listening Dan?” – referring to Dan Gilbert, magnate of the Bedrock empire and head of Quicken Loans who has invested heavily in the city through bringing employment and buying real estate.

Here’s what’s ironic. Oakland County’s fast economic growth that Patterson has presided over since he took his current office in 1992 is in part due to taking companies further away from the core of downtown Detroit. For instance, Auburn Hills gave $84 million in incentives in the late 1980’s to move Chrysler’s technical operations there from the enclave of Highland Park, and the headquarters was soon to follow in the early 90’s. Many companies fled Detroit aided and abetted by incentives offered  at various levels of suburban government. Similar to the way that Patterson said he’d be more impressed if Gilbert were attracting people from other states (which he is), we’d be more impressed if Oakland County’s success wasn’t built on the back of a hollowed-out Detroit.

Patterson’s comments poison the well for groups like tech248, which is yet another branding and networking exercise out of the Oakland County folks in the line of Connectech 2.0 and Medical Main Street. The message being intoned is that this is Patterson’s baby, and if you’re not in, you’re out – which isn’t a good look.

High-tech talent that everyone is trying to attract want a lot of things that Oakland County (and most of Metro Detroit) don’t currently offer much of. Things like real mass transit. Lively nightlife. Walkable, bikable communities. And much more. And Gilbert (along with other companies and organizations that have taken leadership roles downtown, such as the Downtown Detroit Partnership, Wayne State, and various foundations) have shown results in moving the ball forward on some of that. M1-Rail isn’t the end-all answer but it’s a start. Downtown residential occupancy demand is high. You can see the energy on the streets, and it seems every week there’s something new opening. Meanwhile, Royal Oak which is one of the most urbane of Oakland County’s cities, is fighting off a rash of storefront vacancy.

The thing is, this doesn’t … nor should it … be a Detroit vs. the suburbs conversation. It’s the wrong way to frame this, but it keeps coming up thanks to our leadership. For instance, if you want real transformation, if our regional leaders could get off the dime and do a real transit corridor down Woodward and tie into the airport so you could take a high-speed train or bus rapid transit to major centers like almost every other large city on the planet, you could infuse life not just into Detroit but even more so into Ferndale and Royal Oak. It could be a viable shot in the arm for struggling Pontiac, which is often over-looked in discussions around development and forgotten about in the Oakland County Success Narrative ™.

Percent change in college grads across county

The whole region (yes, the data above speaks for the metro Detroit region) is experiencing a severe brain drain of college graduates, the worst in the nation, and pointing fingers about who has taken what companies inside the region is missing the plot completely. When it comes to the future, we’re bickering while everyone else is eating our lunch.

L. Brooks Patterson is very good at day-to-day operations and has accomplished much for Oakland County, but as far as where the future is going, it’s time to get with the times. Oakland County is one of the 10 richest counties in the nation right now. But in the 1930’s Highland Park, the former home of Chrysler and where Model T was built, had the best city services and schools in the nation and had more than 52,000 people living there. Today there’s less than a fifth of that. Things can and do change if you don’t keep up with key shifts.

The drab office park setup lampooned in the 1999 movie “Office Space” may have been the “in” thing at that time, and Oakland County has that in spades. And certainly Oakland County does have a lot of very nice and enjoyable amenities. But things change. Technology erases borders and brings people together. Metro Detroit has the chance to do some amazing things, but before that can happen, it’s time to put the cassettes back in the closet and get with what’s happening now across the country. Focusing on city vs. suburbs is so 1990’s. The reality now is that it’s Detroit vs. Everybody.

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