The Detroit region is a proverbial frog boiling alive in a pot of water.
There are several major topics being tackled up here at the Mackinac Policy Conference — talent, transit, the opioid crisis and education among them. But the through-line that we see between all of them is “Will Metro Detroit become a permanent second-class region?”
See, despite what some politicians would like to tell you, all is not rosy in the Paris of the Midwest. The city does have a comeback beginning. But anyone who’s visited other cities and regions knows that even our “nicest” area of Midtown is an average block in most other major cities.
Our roads are reminiscent of the surface of the moon. And it’s our fault because we refuse to spend what it takes to fix our infrastructure.
Michigan’s education system — as we discussed with Ron French of Bridge Magazine — http://www.dailydetroit.com/2018/03/22/michigans-bad-schools/ is in deep trouble, much closure to the bottom of the barrel among states that the top of the heap.
And transit? Well, there’s many second- and third- world regions that have better mass transit than we do. It’s something that’s like air to most millennial workers, not to mention many of the urbane executives and engineering talent we like to lure from other automotive hubs like Germany and Japan. But here, we have a bunch of folks who are telling their kids to get off their lawn and driveway — and then wonder why they don’t move back “home.”
To us, transit is a question of equity. It’s a hand up for people to get to jobs and improve their own station in life, not a hand out. In Metro Detroit, we’re apparently fine with “I got mine.” And that’s not the kind of community people who want to build something great want to live in.
Here’s the scary thing: The electorate, especially in parts of Oakland and most of Macomb County, is apparently fine with that. And our elected leaders? We’re back to the tiresome suburban/city bickering. It sure was nice to have a break from that, however brief.
But it’s not a good look, guys.
While you’re fighting, our future is leaving this state, and businesses by and large aren’t finding the talent they need. We look to people like Dan Gilbert to do everything, when in fact, if we were a successful region, we’d have 20 or more of them. Dan Gilbert in Chicago is just another rich guy. Here, he runs the table because he’s among the few games in town.
But that’s our culture. We’ve long looked to big companies to fix our problems. Ford, Chrysler and General Motors had their claws in city governments across Metro Detroit who then didn’t plan for people and residents. For the most part, they did what the biggest companies in town asked.
We made whole suburbs based on racist principles. Henry Ford, though a brilliant engineer, was a racist and anti-Semite. With his money and power, he weaved his wretched social beliefs into the fabric of our area, and most of us don’t even realize it.
And Detroit’s mostly hated Coleman Young? He wasn’t a cause. He was a symptom and a catalyst, like Donald Trump today. Now, we have Oakland County exec L. Brooks Patterson back to his cantankerous old ways, flipping corn and blankets over the proverbial fence and flipping off the camera. And Macomb’s Mark Hackel? He never met a political wind he didn’t bow to. He’s right about his electorate today, but he’s going to be on the wrong side of history.
What we need now is leadership. Will a champion, or a set of champions, step forward, or are we going to have 20 more years of the same story? Now is the time, or we fear the window of a Motor City comeback will close. And maybe that’s what our current leaders really want: the status quo, with a festering doughnut-hole for an urban core and a collection of disparate, sprawling suburbs offering plentiful parking. Nothing galvanizes a base like an enemy. And the easiest enemy in Metro Detroit always seems to be your neighbor.
So the question this year really is this: Will Metro Detroit find the will to turn a corner to keep up with the rest of the nation, or are we going become a permanent second- or third-class region? The choice, as they say, is ours.