Now Detroit will get to see just how good Mayor Mike Duggan really is.
Effective at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, the largest American city ever to succumb to municipal bankruptcy begins its first full day back in business. The excuses are gone: there is no more Chapter 9 stigmatizing the city; no emergency manager to blame; no fear of a restructuring the city needed to survive.
"This is what I signed up for," the mayor said Wednesday, flanked by Gov. Rick Snyder and Kevyn Orr, the departing emergency manager headed back to Maryland. "How do you deliver services in a city where the unemployment rate is double the state's?"
It's Duggan's job to answer his own question, to demonstrate that Detroit's improbably quick run through Chapter 9 will be the fresh start promised by a leaner balance sheet and $1.4 billion more for services over the next decade — not false hope.
Part of that job is managing expectations. It's reminding Detroiters and those on the outside looking in that a half-century of decline and desertion cannot be erased in less than 18 months, that the way forward will require discipline and business-like management — not the bad, old habits of the past.
"Tomorrow's not any different than today," Duggan said. "We still have enormous challenges delivering services in the city every day, but at least we're not in bankruptcy."
No, and that fact will require adjustments at City Hall, starting with a commitment to accountability for what is done there, not just said. Are glimmers of culture change real and lasting? Or just practiced responses to the yokes of bankruptcy and an emergency manager, both gone?
We'll soon find out.
No longer can Orr be used as the foil willing to make tough decisions, enabling council and the mayor to stake popular positions free of consequence. No longer can outside consultants be tagged for unpopular restructuring moves that now rest with the administration and council.
Elected officials once again are fully in charge of Detroit, obligating them to execute a court-approved plan in specific ways their predecessors never could. That's an opportunity and a contradiction all at the same time.
Detroit's bankruptcy burnished the city's reputation as the epicenter of urban decline. It confirmed that 50 years of one-party rule, political corruption, financial mismanagement and depopulation culminates in collapse.
Skeptics rooting for the city to slide back into insolvency — chiefly because they're convinced the city can "never" change, no matter who's leading it — will look for any sign of renewed dysfunction. (Case in point: last week's power failure led some national news broadcasts.)
But Detroit's run through bankruptcy demonstrated something else: with some high-priced help and a shove from a risk-taking governor, the city is reckoning with the bleak reality of its predicament. It could shed $7 billion in debt, restructure $3 billion more in debt and begin to repair woefully ineffective operations.
Whether it can reverse the overall population exodus or stabilize the tax base or maintain the discipline exacted by an emergency manager and a bankruptcy judge will become more clear over the coming months and next few years.
Near-term, they'll have help. From the Snyder administration and a Republican-controlled Legislature in Lansing to an energized business community buoyed by a resurgent auto industry, the city is emerging from bankruptcy amid an expanding national economy producing jobs and investment.
Detroit is the new hip town among people looking for the next new (and cheaper) thing. It's attracting people and capital, generating enthusiasm and philanthropic attention, re-establishing a downtown business sector and competent municipal management, charting the future more than trying to recapture the bygone past.
To make the point, the New York-based Ford Foundation used the day of Detroit's emergence from Chapter 9 to announce $1.3 million in new grants to seven causes, augmenting its $125 million pledge to the "grand bargain" that helped speed the case to conclusion.
The Kresge Foundation, a $100 million grand bargain funder, pledged $20 million over five years to support early childhood programs in Detroit. And Ilitch Holdings announced a new office tower for its Little Caesars Pizza unit, one of 14 downtown buildings planned for its $650 million arena development.
The tradeoff for the enthusiasm, business activity and second chance of bankruptcy is higher expectations for elected officials. A Financial Review Commission is tasked with monitoring Detroit's fiscal decision-making; but if City Hall does its job, the FRC's shadow likely will recede.
The management team assembled by Duggan, a former CEO of Detroit Medical Center, exudes veteran competence and the track record to prove it in ways previous administrations could not match. Still, the team must perform.
"There's execution risk, for sure," Orr told The Detroit News. "The mayor has a team of people who are proven change agents. These are people who understand it, who are committed to it. The short-term I'm very confident about."
Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found here.