Howes: MI preparing new development push to help Flint

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Michigan’s obligation to repair its damage to Flint isn’t contained to financing lead pipe replacements and tracking the public health impacts of tainted water.

Not even close. The state’s second largest minority-majority city, whacked by a crisis directly impacting property values and the willingness of jobs-creating businesses to invest in the city, desperately needs help with an economic redevelopment strategy that produces results.

Even as Gov. Rick Snyder pushes the Legislature to approve up to $195 million for Flint, the state is preparing an economic development push that aims to deliver, among other things, new economic infrastructure to encourage investment and a brand-name grocery chain to the city’s north end.

“You’ve got the best economic development people not just in the state but in the country involved in that process,” the governor told The Detroit News on Monday, pointedly naming Michigan Economic Development Corp. CEO Steve Arwood and his predecessor, Mike Finney. “We’re still ramping up. These are actions in process.”

Those include three MEDC staffers on the ground in Flint to offer local business owners access to business retention programs; outreach to business owners to ensure they have access to clean water; efforts to determine how and whether Flint’s Big Three institutions of University of Michigan-Flint, Kettering University and Mott Community College, may aid in formation of startup companies.

“We’re starting to have discussions with the right partners ... to build the core constituencies up,” the governor continued. “It’s about how we can work better together and how we look at economic development.”

To the governor’s fiercest critics, from Flint locals and Mayor Karen Weaver to Jesse Jackson and Hillary Clinton, talk of bolstering economic development will ring as decidedly against the point in the blame game building to Michigan’s March 8 primary and Snyder’s testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

But the heat of a presidential campaign is transient, quick to discard memes once their tactical usefulness is past. How the state can jump-start badly needed reinvestment in Flint, or help existing businesses, will linger long after the Presidential Grandstand Parade moves on — at least until the general-election campaign returns in late summer.

Rebuilding trust will be equally difficult. The weight of evidence found in thousands of emails obtained from local, state and federal officials shows a maddening indifference to the water troubles of Flint residents, or the probable connection of that water to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that sickened 87 people and killed nine.

Michigan has an obligation to Flint, which Lansing controlled under various iterations of the state emergency manager law enabling the unilateral switch to drawing municipal water from the corrosive Flint River. The city is returning to control by its elected officials; a logical next step is identifying ways to help the city off its economic back.

It badly needs the help. Riven by crime and unemployment, Flint is Exhibit No. 1 for the perils of economic contraction — arguably even more than Detroit. It is a shell of its heyday during the glory years of General Motors Corp., when the sprawling Buick City and other operations personified American post-war industrial might and solid Middle Class lives lived well.

Major corporate players have an obligation to Flint, too — none more so than GM, whose decades-long presence there is a shadow of what it used to be. Its exodus, as much a product of automotive mediocrity as willful neglect, left behind a city ill-prepared for the cycle of decline that came next.

The city has never been the same, its predicament exacerbated by a generation or more of elected leaders who refused to acknowledge the implications of the fundamental change on their city, its politics and its financial wherewithal.

Flint is too small to draw a corporate revival like that sparked by Dan Gilbert’s Quicken Loans Inc. empire, or to host professional sports franchises, or to claim cultural destinations on the scale of the Detroit Institute of Arts and Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

The state’s moves come as corporate and foundation leaders continue talks to develop a “needs list” that can be used as a basis for soliciting public-private support for the battered city, chiefly to address issues not directly tied to pipe replacements and related infrastructure upgrades.

Flint needs help, lots of it, fixing its tainted infrastructure and finding an economic path to last long after the politicians and those who would be have moved on.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.