Howes: Regional Amazon bid to test leadership cohesion
Mayor Mike Duggan likens the gathering regional bid to land Amazon’s second headquarters to delivering Detroit Super Bowl XL more than a decade ago.
But it’s not even close. The hunt for Amazon is far larger, far more competitive and far more likely to tax the ability of just about anyone to corral business, political and civic leaders around a deadline measured in weeks, not years. The deadline is Oct. 19 to proffer a plan to compete for a $5 billion investment worth 50,000 jobs.
“We’ve got five weeks,” the mayor said Thursday at Crain’s Detroit Business’s Detroit Homecoming. “We’re up against really tough competition from really good cities.”
Yes, we are — as Detroit Regional Chamber CEO Sandy Baruah learned this week when he flew to Toronto for a speech on trade between Canada and the United States. On the minds of the Canadian CEOs: luring Amazon’s massive economic play north of the border, no mean feat in the era of Trump.
This is no secret to the online retail giant, of course. With a single press release, Amazon unleashed an interstate and intercity feeding frenzy for a chance to land one of the biggest economic development fish since, when? The stakes are high, and the cost is likely to be even higher.
That’s not deterring Detroit’s mayor, facing re-election. It’s not deterring Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert, who quickly accepted Duggan’s offer to chair the regional effort to prepare an Amazon bid. And it’s not deterring local and state politicians, or a business community that is far more active in economic development efforts than their predecessors a decade ago.
In fundamental ways, this region is different than the one industrialist Roger Penske shepherded through the process of bidding for a Super Bowl (at the personal request of Bill Ford Jr., whose family owns the Lions). It’s more competent, more confident and often more regionally cooperative.
It’s witnessed the deep costs of division and political corruption, of big business that worries more about bragging rights with competitors than being competitive. It’s tasted the ignominy of financial dissolution, and seen how private capital can breed renewal.
Weathering the near-collapse of two Detroit automakers, the Great Recession and the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history can do that. Seeing the crucial importance of individual leaders in a broader mosaic of leadership can, too. So can national embarrassment.
Southeast Michigan is legendary for parochial infighting pitting city against suburb, for measuring solutions to difficult civic problems in decades, not years, for fixating on why change cannot happen instead of pushing to make it happen.
Which raises a critical point that will be answered by the success of Gilbert & Co. to rally disparate leaders quickly around a cohesive bid: Were the speed and decisiveness of the auto restructuring, of the city’s financial workout, of the revitalization of downtown just historical aberrations?
Or are they harbingers of a can-do future liberated from the confrontational zero-sum game that helped drive Detroit and its hometown auto industry to the edge of complete financial collapse?
Look, no one should kid themselves: For a bid that seeks access to regional transit with connections to an international airport, the region that put America on wheels is woefully behind. For a bid that aims to create a second headquarters hub for one of 21st-century America’s iconic corporate brands, southeast Michigan isn’t too far removed from the stain of bankruptcy, municipal and corporate.
How indelible are those stains, if at all?
We’re about to find out.
“This is a no-lose proposition for southeast Michigan,” says Baruah of the Chamber. “Best case is we prevail under some very heavy competition. Even if we don’t win, but come close. It’s still a win for us. We learn how to do this well.”
Whatever happens, business and political leaders arguably are more aligned around the economic way forward than any time in decades. The Democratic mayor of Detroit and the Republican governor coalesce around common problems, and more often than not so do their respective lawmakers.
Business leaders are more predisposed to dig into civic problems, with a dozen or so of their top leaders coming together in a new, still-unnamed group to champion reform. For the first time in a decade or more, Detroit’s automakers are led by longtime Michiganders — Mary Barra at General Motors Co. and Bill Ford and Jim Hackett at Ford.
None of that is enough to guarantee success in the campaign for Amazon. But it should give southeast Michigan a chance to earn a win that could change its economic trajectory.
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