The Detroit “image” or “reputation” that billionaire investor Dan Gilbert blamed for being largely responsible for the city losing the Amazon bid, instead of crucial factors like lack of talent or transit, has never left the city.
The reputation of the city as a gritty, dangerous and difficult place to live is not fiction. It is reality for many Detroiters who have remained around and continue to do so even long before the advent of the “new Detroit.”
In a terse letter sent last week to members of the Amazon Detroit Bid Committee, Gilbert, the founder of Quicken Loans and Rock Ventures writes, “We are still dealing with the unique radioactive-like reputational fallout of 50-60 years of economic decline, disinvestment, municipal bankruptcy, and all of the other associated negative consequences of that extraordinarily long period of time.”
He added, “This lingering, negative perception has unfortunately survived our impressive progress over the last several years. It is clear that we don’t do ourselves any favors by feeding the pessimistic narrative about Detroit and our region, when this view is not anywhere near the balanced full story. I believe this is the single largest obstacle that we face.”
These words from Gilbert’s five-page missive first shared on his Twitter page read like a surgeon operating on a very sick patient.
In this case, the patient Detroit has always remained sick, trying to recover with every new administration offering a different prescription. But the city still does not have a clean bill of health.
And unless you are looking at Detroit’s rejuvenation through a one-sided lens that touts the number of buildings downtown that have been brought back alive by new renters and businesses and a Midtown that is reportedly at 90 percent or more occupancy rate, the city still has profound and longstanding socioeconomic challenges.
These challenges include poverty, which is more pronounced now than ever. For instance, with 35.7 percent living in poverty, Detroit was designated the poorest big city in the U.S., according to a 2016 Census report.
Yes, Detroit has a reputation problem that is real and not just based on perception. It’s called poverty, a place where a majority of the city’s children live in an economic reality that is far removed from the one officials and cheerleaders of the “comeback” like to celebrate.
Even on education, the question remains: when will Detroit be a model district? The public school system is supposed to be the foundation for a future talent pool, but the district is behind, according to a 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress report, which stated that Detroit’s fourth- and eighth-graders are the worst of any large district in the nation in math and reading proficiency.
And Detroit’s housing market remains another issue, according to 2016 Urban Institute data that showed for example, how homes in the Woodward corridor sell for over $200,000 while in other parts of the city, homes are going for under $30,000.
Earlier this year, the city ranked second to last in a study on the 2018 “Best Places to Find a Job,” which surveyed about 180 cities based on the strength of their economy, including data from the Census.
Let’s face it. Attracting employers is key to social transformation and addressing income inequality. It is the tide that lifts all boats because with it comes more jobs, tax revenue, infrastructure and viable transportation options.
Despite some paltry investments in certain areas of the city, we are not out of the woods on the most important quality of life issues such as public safety.
Consider the fact that the FBI’s crime report ranked Detroit as the nation’s most violent big city in 2016. This is yet another fact that compels many to view Detroit differently from the highly optimistic position repeatedly advanced by Mayor Mike Duggan.
But I welcome Gilbert’s letter as an opportunity to have an honest debate about where Detroit is and where it ought to be in the next decade. It is an opportunity to discuss how and where to make the most investments within that time frame that would lead to a sustainable future.
After all, a city that is said to be on the rebound cannot ignore the fact that any definition of meaningful economic growth is incomplete if it fails to include poverty reduction initiatives as important factors.
With the city prime for maximum growth in the next couple of years as some often suggest, the rejection by Amazon also presents an important avenue to debate the characteristics of the “new Detroit” versus the “old Detroit” because the two are mutually inclusive.
And since the visibility of the progress cited overall by the current administration hasn’t led to significant changes in quality of life for many Detroiters, it is all the more reason to use the Amazon snub as a moment to discuss how best to grow Detroit.
“We must understand that new restaurants and an Under Armour store do not equate to equity or success. Bricks and mortar are great, but in the end a city, region is defined by the opportunities that exist for all residents,” Kurt Metzer, founder of Data Driven Detroit and mayor of Pleasant Ridge, said in an email.
Metzer, who has observed the city’s growth for a long time as former director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University, said while Detroit waits for the next Amazon-like opportunity, it must work to get its house in order.
Detroit’s failure to lure Amazon isn’t only an issue for the city but for the region as well, according to Rufus Bartell, a Detroit entrepreneur who sees mass transit as key to city and regional growth.
But Bartell also sees race as a problem.
“Our region continues to grapple with this repugnant problem as it causes us to lag behind in almost every metrics that measures what progressive companies are looking for deciding locations,” Bartell said.
“Segregation, racial animosity and a lack of vision in our leaders rule the day,” the data guru said. “We cannot come together on coordinated regional transit and the politicians north of Eight Mile do not understand the importance of a strong central city.”
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