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If Detroit's epic bankruptcy proved a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, the months since show that opportunities can be, too.

Among them: creating a regional water authority; fielding a comprehensive plan to rebuild Michigan's roads and bridges; fixing broken public education in Detroit; and financially restructuring Wayne County. The largest municipal bankruptcy in American history is proof that intractable public policy problems can be solved.

But will they be?

There is no discipline from a judge wielding bankruptcy law, not directly anyway. There is no emergency manager empowered by Public Act 436, except in Detroit Public Schools. There is a federal judge, Sean Cox, mediating the water talks, even as his gag order is serially challenged by Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel.

He's allowed, notwithstanding the obvious political calculation he strenuously denies. He's allowed to do that, too. The more important point is that responsibility for results again falls to elected officials with mixed records for overcoming petty political concerns.

Will the leaders seize the historic opportunities clearly in front of them, born of bankruptcy and the unprecedented alignment of business leaders, politicians and philanthropy? Or will they blow them in spasms of dysfunction and recrimination, proving once again that metro Detroit's biggest enemies often are its own people and their leaders?

There is reason to be hopeful. Civic momentum bolstered by the steady flow of private capital, a rehabilitating image and evidence of pent-up demand is not easily derailed by backward-looking pols fighting decades-old battles — not when demand for downtown housing outstrips supply and wags are labeling Detroit "the new Brooklyn."

Each of the opportunities, in their own way, is teed up. A deal on the Great Lakes Water Authority could come as early as Friday. State House lawmakers moved their next cut at road legislation, albeit one that would gut the Earned Income Tax Credit, would beggar the Michigan Economic Development Corp.'s budget and would require a more mature measure from the Senate.

Wayne County's financial morass is likely to get worse before it gets better, a fact county Executive Warren Evans is not afraid to address. Good for him, because denial is no substitute for the kind of remedies that will include (one way or another) sacrifices by employees, retirees and taxpayers.

That's why they call it a crisis, people. Raging against the county bureaucracy or the new executive, the unions or the voters, won't change the fundamental rot consuming the county's financial infrastructure or how it got there. The choices are binary: pay or leave, elect competent leaders or suffer the consequences of incompetence.

Be it state roads, county finances or city schools, seizing opportunity requires leaders willing to make tough calls, not followers fretting their political vulnerability to unpopular decisions. It demands determination to fix problems with sustainable solutions instead of patching them with short-term remedies.

It takes understanding the difference between investment, in the long-term sense of the word, and quick spending meant to substitute show for action. It means recognizing the unique confluence of forces that are making the long-thought impossible actually possible.

Consider:

In a town long bereft of brand-name retailers, a Whole Foods Market on Mack near Woodward teems with people. Meijer Inc., the Walker-based superstore chain, Thursday opened its second store in the city. Destination retail is coming to Lower Woodward, courtesy of market-maker Dan Gilbert and his burgeoning downtown empire.

By sometime next month, Mayor Mike Duggan says, streetlights in all city neighborhoods are expected to be replaced. Regrettable confrontations between police and minorities in other major cities, the stuff of national news, are not occurring in Detroit, a welcome change that underscores the value of stability in the police department.

City government, prodded by the bankruptcy restructuring plan, is swapping its bias for control with competence, good management and recognition of regional interest in assets it shares with the suburbs. Governance of a thoroughly renovated Cobo Center is the model of regional cooperation a would-be water authority should emulate.

Even Republican-controlled Lansing, pulled between the opposing poles of union-dominated left and the tea party right, is demonstrating a willingness to forge solutions for Detroit — a mostly unthinkable, and unworkable, sentiment not too many years ago.

Things change, and so do people. Maintaining the momentum means seizing opportunities as they are now, understanding that the arc of the story is not a nostalgia-fueled comeback. It's a reinvention moving forward.

daniel.howes@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http://detroitnews.com/staff/27151

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