In his latest divisive missive, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson sounds like an emperor yelling at the thunder clouds in the sky, ordering it not to rain.
According to the letter, some CEOs of large companies and organizations in the area are getting together an initiative to either improve or go around the Detroit Regional Chamber. I have no knowledge of the ins and outs of the plan. If there’s anything to know in Detroit area politics, plans aren’t done until they’re done and things can shift quickly.
Patterson’s letter calls on Oakland County Chamber directors to meet at his office to discuss a few things. Specifically the idea that Detroit is going to take the suburb’s investment leads.
“You don’t have to read between the lines, it is clear what is happening: these self-appointed saviors for southeast Michigan are in the process of forming an ‘economic partnership’ to direct business investments to the City of Detroit … They will have no hesitation about coming into your community and snatching business leads in the righteous cause of ‘rebuilding Detroit.’ “
This is ironic because for decades Oakland County has benefitted on the decline of Detroit, offering incentives to attract businesses while the whole region sinks (more on that in a minute).
It’s only recently the shift started going the other way, starting with Compuware and Quicken Loans and increasing in pace as of late.
But the world is changing around Brooks and leaders like him. Not only is Detroit improving its business climate (and acumen at keeping employers), but the overall talent market is changing, too. To be globally competitive for top talent, you need more urban spaces. More walkability. Real transit. Amenities. There’s a reason why Ford is moving their mobility operations to the old Michigan Central Depot and making huge investments in Corktown. It’s not charity.
It’s because they believe it’ll be attractive to workers that will keep their business competitive.
Although I applaud Patterson and his balanced budgets, I also don’t buy that the last set of city or suburban leaders going all the way back to 1970 have been very good for metro Detroit. They’ve played our divisions (and we citizens fell for it) to our detriment.
Everyone talks about the city of Detroit’s decline and the suburbs rise. But I pose another idea.
That while we’ve been fighting with each other, we all have been losing. People haven’t been choosing metro Detroit while the country has lapped us. The entire Detroit region has lost people between 1970 and 2016, while the country gained nearly 60 percent.
In 1970, the Detroit region’s population was 4,490,902. In 2016, it was at 4,313,002. That’s a drop of 3.9 percent.
The entire region has seen a decline while the rest of the country’s population grew 57.6 percent. In 1970, there were about 205.1 million people in the United States. In 2016, 323.4 million.
If metro Detroit was just keeping pace with the growth the rest of the country saw, our region would now have about 7 million people. That isn’t winning. That’s not even keeping up.
Patterson may have a large amount of power in his fiefdom, but greater forces are gathering around him that he cannot control.
Many workers under 40 today have a different set of priorities. Not just any job will do. They saw their families and parents get decimated by the housing crisis, so many don’t buy into the traditional system of get a white picket house in the ‘burbs, drive around everywhere, eat a bunch of fast food and go home.
In fact, many workers can’t afford that suburban house (if they even want it anymore) with high student loan debt and other burdens that previous financial generations didn’t have. It’s rare that quality talent stays in the same job for years, and so they may move… or even move cities. Their purchasing tastes are different too. For instance, the giant brewers are suffering while craft ones are rising. There’s a reason you see so many so-called “hipster” places in Detroit. Because it works. People frequent them.
Sure, those workers — often referred to as millenials — are the brunt of a lot of jokes, but that’s who is the predominant workforce now.
And to be sure, there have been suburban areas that have seen more major investment as of late. They look more like Ferndale and Royal Oak.
Detroit’s legacy leaders shouldn’t think about competition against each other, but that we’re in a national and global marketplace.
Detroit’s brand is hot. Those ads in subways in New York and on billboards across the country don’t read “Shinola Huntington Woods,” or “Shinola Franklin,” or “Shinola Bloomfield Hills.”
They read Shinola Detroit.
Because Detroit matters. The brand matters. And so does rebuilding Detroit.
Yes, we need to make sure the comeback is inclusive. Inclusive for the citizens that live here, and inclusive as in the entire region seeing benefits and growing together. To me, that’s part of what it means to be a Detroiter. We pioneered the $5 work day, and we for years were a place where the middle class could enjoy an amazing standard of living. We set that bar.
So yes Brooks, rebuilding Detroit is a righteous cause. One to be proud of and part of. But to make it happen, we’re going to think differently than we have in the past.