Howes: The new Detroit shedding ‘Loserville’ rap
It’s Loserville here no more.
Two years after Detroit emerged from the largest municipal bankruptcy in the nation’s history, the city America gave up for dead is showing that it is anything but. Where it counts, the momentum shows little sign of abating.
Vacant downtown office space is growing increasingly hard to find, notwithstanding temporary setbacks for development incentives sought by such moguls as Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert. Restaurants, bars and retail are proliferating.
Testing is beginning on the QLine trolley along lower Woodward, a largely privately financed effort designed to connect the spine of downtown. The Ilitch family’s District Detroit development is moving ahead, and starting next fall it also will be the home to the Pistons NBA franchise.
The Detroit narrative is changing, perceptibly, with an assist from generally positive macro-economic conditions. The net effect is a mutually reinforcing loop that benefits City Hall and the residents its serves as much as an auto industry that needed federal help to escape collapse before embarking on a fundamental restructuring.
These are good problems to have, people. They’re a refreshing change from decades of negativity and self-doubt. They’re also rebuttals to the cynicism of those content to lob cheap shots from the remove of their keyboards and smartphones.
Foundations and corporate philanthropies are selectively backing the city, its businesses and its neighborhoods; business leaders are investing private capital to join the excitement sparked by Gilbert’s move downtown six years ago; City Hall is working in ways a functioning government should, providing things from functioning streetlights to robust financial management.
The city’s beleaguered public school system is reconstituted and poised to be led by a newly elected board. How the new entity fares will depend heavily on the professionalism its leadership demonstrates. A new report from Moody’s Investors Service says the district has renewed capability to pay its debt and likely avoid a costly Chapter 9 bankruptcy.
No, everything is not rosy. Violent crime continues to weigh on portions of the city. Neighborhood revitalization lags the pace set by downtown. The exodus from Detroit Public Schools burdens an already difficult financial picture. But this city’s reconstitution is a process, not a destination with guaranteed arrival.
The eponymous auto industry is no different, really. Detroit’s automakers, effectively a ward of the federal government at the outset of the Obama administration, are closing an eight-year span their leaders used to re-engineer companies that tottered on the edge of collapse on Election Day 2008.
Eight years later, at least two of Detroit’s three automakers — as well as many of its suppliers — are emerging as players to be reckoned with in both the traditional car and truck business as well as the emerging mobility space. Loserville? Hardly.
The creation of the American Center for Mobility at Willow Run and the Michigan Legislature’s move to enact the most far-reaching autonomous-vehicle laws in the country underscore the state’s bid to become the nation’s epicenter of mobility development and testing.
The combination of industry expertise and public-private mobility partnerships creates an ecosystem that steadily erases the line between between the auto industry and its tech counterparts based in Silicon Valley.
That would be a net-positive for Detroit, its image and its standing among skeptical investors predisposed to believing only tech giants have the capability to integrate high technology into the more pedestrian pieces of sheet metal, engines and rubber found in new vehicles. They don’t.
Finally, Michigan and its largest city stand to benefit in the era of Trump. Nearly eight years after President Barack Obama decided to rescue two Detroit automakers with taxpayer money, Donald Trump will take office thanks in part to Michigan’s 16 electoral votes.
As much as his “Build American” jawboning threatens to cause headaches for Detroit auto CEOs still investing in foreign markets like Mexico and China, the president-elect’s bias for hometown companies and their workers is likely to be another net-positive for the industry.
So would a Trump regulatory bias that would appear to be more favorable to an industry that has been forced in recent years to design, engineer and sell vehicles fewer customers are willing to buy than Washington would like.
He doesn’t like losers, either.
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.