Howes: Detroit history weighs on failed Amazon HQ2 bid

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Detroit’s “comeback” narrative apparently doesn’t play in Seattle, home to Inc.

The giant online retailer’s decision to exclude the Motor City from 20 finalists for its second North American headquarters, confirmed Thursday, landed with a thud amid the very week Detroit is celebrating the revival of its hometown automakers’ place in a tech-driven global industry.

Realists should not be surprised.

Fifty years of the decline and dysfunction that culminated in epic bankruptcies of General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Group LLC, and just three years ago in the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history, are legacies not easily overcome by fat auto profits and mortgage mogul Dan Gilbert’s rebuild of downtown real estate.

Detroiters writ large may understand just how far their city has come since the Great Recession. They live it daily, see the billions in private-sector investment, feel the energy and pent-up demand. Outsiders in the smug West Coast tech cocoon? Not so much.

Stains from decades of disinvestment, corruption and serial failures to improve public transit cannot be erased by a glossy, if impressive, pitch to Amazon. Nor can Michigan hide unresolved problems with attracting talent and improving K-12 educational performance, a scandal with negative long-term implications.

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The usual suspects — Gilbert, the chairman of Quicken Loans Inc., Mayor Mike Duggan and Gov. Rick Snyder — all issued stiff-upper-lip statements within hours of the Amazon smackdown. They expressed disappointment mixed with encouragement and resolve.

“We are not deterred in any way, shape or form,” Gilbert said, characteristically. “Detroit is the most exciting city in the country right now and the momentum continues to build every single day. All you have to do is spend an hour walking around town and you will have a very clear and deep understanding of the opportunities, optimism and future.”

He’s right. But opportunities and optimism are for works-in-progress, and perhaps no place in America is more of a work-in-progress than Detroit. Add its automakers, and you get 20th-century archetypes for economic achievement that not too long ago virtually collapsed under the weight of willful mediocrity and mismanagement.

This town and this state (or some of both, anyway) may believe those days finally are relegated to the past. That’s not so clear to an outside world nourished by years of “ruin porn,” stories of widespread political corruption, memories of crappy cars they’d rather forget.

Those are reality, too, recollections to be retired only by continuing improvement and a sustainable recovery able to withstand the vagaries of the business cycle. Detroit, Michigan and its auto industry don’t just need to prove to the outside world they can weather a downturn; they need to prove it to themselves.

Now, an instinctual reaction to Amazon’s dissing of Detroit is to rush to extremes. Pessimism accentuates the negative and revives the self-loathing lurking inside way too many around here, and optimism avoids inconvenient negatives, however indisputable they may be.

A third way would be more productive, and it would be more honest. Self-delusion can be corrosive. If there are two things the Amazon exercise demonstrates, they are that powerful, competing interests with the right leadership can collaborate to solve a big, common problem — even if they come up short.

And, second, those same leaders should use this humbling to lay the groundwork to push robust improvements to public transit and, more importantly, to coalesce around sweeping reform to K-12 education. Michigan can’t credibly attract 21st-century talent with some of the worst educational performance in the country.

It’s this simple: Michigan is growing dumber as would-be competitors get smarter and better prepared to prosper in the global knowledge economy. Those are the kind of people Amazon purports to hire to staff its second North American headquarters, and Michigan schools aren’t producing enough of them.

It’s not attracting enough of them either. Besides its woeful lack of effective mass transit, Amazon told local officials here that the retailer remained unconvinced the region could successfully attract the educated, tech-savvy talent it would need to staff what it calls HQ2.

Give Amazon credit for honesty. How regional, state and business leaders leverage the cold, hard facts remains to be seen. My suggestion: use it as a wake-up call, a litmus test for this year’s campaigns for governor and the state Legislature. Can Michigan really be a credible home to the auto industry revolution of mobility, autonomy and electrification if it can’t educate its kids?

As I said last month, ‘It’s important to acknowledge how far this town has come in such a short time.” It’s true that entrepreneurship is enjoying a revival where people with names like Henry Ford flourished a century ago; that the private sector is investing billions in the city; that manufacturing is making a comeback in Michigan.

And the state and it’s largest city are more competitive — but not enough, a message Amazon delivered clearly.

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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.