Detroit – In the casino his parents built, Christopher Ilitch offered a message Thursday that is equal parts encouragement and warning:
“We are at a critical time in Detroit’s history,” the CEO of Ilitch Holdings Inc. told the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Detroit Policy Conference. “There’s been no community that’s been through what Detroit has been through. Through the depths, there’s been a lot of choices.”
There still is, and how they’re made could meaningfully impact Detroit’s arc of reinvention. Despite a booming development scene spearheaded now by the Ilitch family’s $1.2 billion District Detroit, Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert’s empire-building, more effective policing and a burgeoning downtown scene, four words loom: we’re not there yet.
The cost of new construction projects still cannot be fully recouped through commercial and residential rents, developers say. The business climate, including taxes and regulation, still is not as attractive as it could be. And longstanding residents in the city’s neighborhoods worry that the reinvention of downtown and Midtown risks leaving them behind.
“We have been talking about downtown and Midtown so much, and we know downtown and Midtown are important,” City Council President Brenda Jones said. “If we are going to subsidize development, we would like to see something in it for us as well.”
Understandable point, hers. In the eight years since two of Detroit’s automakers gutted through Chapter 11, the region endured the Great Recession and the city submitted to bankruptcy, the path forward has been marked by a spirit of collaboration unusual in this town.
Business and philanthropy helped finance a program to process backlogged rape kits in Wayne County, Prosecutor Kym Worthy says, and to change state law. Corporations and foundations committed the seed money for the “grand bargain” credited with speeding resolution of Detroit’s bankruptcy.
Business leaders stepped in to acquire new police cruisers and EMT trucks, even as some of them finance “secondary patrols” of downtown districts. The moves by General Motors Co. and Gilbert’s Rock Ventures LLC, to name two, to employ off-duty Detroit police officers are supported by Detroit Police Chief James Craig.
The partnership has been bipartisan and regional. It’s been public and private, city and suburb. It’s required Republicans to act less Republican and Democrats to act less Democratic. That’s not because either side is suddenly non-partisan, but because the long history of confrontation and suspicion chronically under-delivers.
And anyone but the most willfully self-deluded knows it. In the annals of the doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, Detroit has long been in a class by itself — until recession and bankruptcy forced radical change.
That’s worth remembering as the city moves into an election year, as the memories of recessionary hardship dim, as the construction and investment boom continues. None of it is guaranteed, including collaboration forged by leaders under difficult circumstances.
If there’s any town in America that can make its virtuous circle become a vicious cycle, Detroit is it. Remembering what’s worked, what hasn’t and how inclusion can improve the chances for success remains critical.
It’s a tricky balance that depends most on leadership and transparency so long as the macro-economic environment remains positive. If there are two themes connecting the reinvention of Detroit with its present, they are that a) experts expect the building and redevelopment boom to continue and b) neighborhood concerns are real and should not be dismissed.
That’s why the Ilitch family’s District Detroit development is so important to the city. Implicit in its economic renewal is the credibility of its promise to employ Detroiters and use Michigan-made materials in a development connecting downtown to Midtown. So far, it is.
“There’s a ton that’s happening here. We’re just not there yet,” says Moddie Turay, executive vice president of real estate and financial services at the Detroit Economic Growth Corp. “We have another five or so years to go. We are at a fragile time — a great time in the city, but still a fragile time.”
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.