Howes: Oakland hits ‘cruising altitude,’ buoying region

Daniel Howes, The Detroit News

In one of the starker reversals this corner of Michigan has seen in a while, Mayor Mike Duggan’s Detroit is getting all the attention — not one of the nation’s richest, and well-run, counties just north of Eight Mile.

The QLine streetcar is scheduled to begin operating on 3.3 miles of lower Woodward next month. Retail development and new residential construction in the city is changing the narrative of Detroit because it’s changing the reality. Emergency response times are improving dramatically.

Billionaire Dan Gilbert’s wallet is steadily transforming downtown. The Ilitch family’s District Detroit arena and mixed-use development will be the new home to both the Red Wings and the Pistons, the latter’s move at the apparent expense of Oakland County.

Detroit, Detroit, Detroit. All told, the markers of progress coming from there amount to long-overdue counterweights to the old narrative of a great American city committing ritual suicide through depopulation, deindustrialization and recurring fits of corruption and confrontation.

The reinvention is far from complete. Crime, illiteracy and wide swaths of neighborhoods remain untouched by the revival — whose chronicling locally and nationally is a boon to a mayor seeking re-election. How convenient.

But don’t cry for Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and all he surveys. The county’s economy “appears to have reached a comfortable cruising altitude after a turbulent start to the millennium,” says the University of Michigan’s annual forecast of the state’s No. 2 county.

Economists Gabriel Ehrlich and Don Grimes predict employment will grow 2 percent in each of the next three years, creating 44,000 jobs in the county of 1.2 million. Employment paying $75,000 a year or more will grow by 6.6 percent, or 16,000 jobs, while so-called “middle-wage jobs” between $35,000 and just under $75,000 will expand by roughly 18,000.

“The growth in Oakland County continues to skew toward the better-compensated end of the wage scale, although not quite as tilted toward the higher end as in the past six years,” Grimes, a researcher in the university’s Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy, said in statement. “This growth pattern bodes well for Oakland’s sustained economic prosperity.”

In the state Michigan Future Inc. has now dubbed “a low-prosperity state,” that’ll work. The forecast predicts stronger job growth in professional and business services, health services, hospitality and what it calls “private education,” with manufacturing showing slower growth. Old Economy — not so much.

That’s good. The outlook feels so far removed from the grim days of 2008 and 2009, when the global financial meltdown pushed the hometown auto industry to the brink of collapse and walloped Michigan’s most prosperous county.

What’s changed, too, is that Patterson’s Oakland no longer is the region’s undisputed leader in business activity. It’s beginning to share that position with Detroit, whose downtown resurgence is claiming more corporate presence and entertainment investment than anytime in decades.

Nothing wrong with that. For years the smart people in business and political circles preached the need to think and act regionally, which generally meant the suburbs carrying a city that business was content to regard warily. Now it means city and suburb prospering in their own way.

Notwithstanding the Pistons bolting Auburn Hills or Fifth Third Bank decamping Southfield, there’s enough business activity and economic updraft to go around. Seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates fell last month across the state. And total employment is up in each of the state’s 17 regions as measured by the state Department of Technology, Management & Budget.

There are several messages here, starting with the fact that job growth in both the city and suburbs is expected to be disproportionately led by the professional jobs in the so-called “knowledge economy.” They tend to require higher education in exchange for higher salaries.

The second message: the economic future will be less powered by the nuts-and-bolts manufacturing that defined Michigan’s past. Instead it’ll be driven by the technical know-how buried in everything from advanced product development and self-driving cars to the latest financial technology and start-up companies.

In nation’s historic epicenter of industrial might, the choice is all of the above.

(313) 222-2106

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