Howes: ‘Fail jail’ deal opens opportunity for Detroit

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

The end is near for metro Detroit’s monument to governmental incompetence, and that opens some new possibilities.

After years of wrangling and study, and payments of $1.3 million a month to service debt essentially buying nothing for Wayne County taxpayers, the “fail jail” will be consigned to the ash heap of history. It’s a reminder that past elections have consequences — and the last one to elect Bob Ficano county executive has proven very expensive.

The county, City Hall and mortgage mogul Dan Gilbert this week agreed to swap the half-finished jail site on Gratiot for a tract along Interstate 75. Gilbert’s Rock Ventures will build a $533 million criminal justice center for the county, whose taxpayers will see their obligation capped at $380 million.

The tentative deal is a winner all the way around: the county under Executive Warren Evans gets a new justice complex it can afford, Gilbert gets prime real estate bordering his Greektown Casino and the eastern gateway to downtown, and the city gets the prospect of taxable commercial and residential property on the outer edge of downtown.

It’s a proverbial gift signifying the art of the possible. This in a town for too long accustomed to declaring the impossible and hiding behind intransigent elected officials (in the city and the neighboring counties) enthralled to suspicion, confrontation and conventional wisdom.

Not anymore. Except this: the city’s 50-year arc of decline cannot be reversed only by Gilbert’s wallet, or smart CEOs atop the city and the county, or business leaders redirecting assets and people back into the city many of them fled years before.

Detroit needs more. It needs small investors reclaiming corners of neighborhoods, foundations supporting critical institutions and redevelopment plans, elected officials dissatisfied with the status quo, forward-thinking university presidents looking for ways to extend their public mission into the city’s future by respecting its legacy as a global transportation hub.

An example: state leaders, including Gov. Rick Snyder, business groups and the hometown automakers all agree that Detroit (depending on your definition) can lay claim to being the capital of Auto 2.0. But is it really the hub of mobility, autonomy and electrification? Not yet.

Lear Corp., the Southfield-based auto supplier, now has an Innovation Center on Capitol Park’s State Street. And Ford Motor Co.’s Team Edison, the automaker’s mobility, electrification and autonomy unit, is moving to a renovated century-old building on the edge of Corktown.

That’s a necessary start, but it’s not sufficient. Could the University of Michigan, one of the nation’s pre-eminent public institutions, open an Institute for Mobility and Artificial Intelligence in the city of Detroit — providing the academic heft and technical cred to underpin an ecosystem of early-stage business development that attracts young talent?

Could it collaborate with Michigan State University and Wayne State University to create a center in the heart of the Motor City connecting its legacy of innovation and manufacturing to a spirit of competition and execution that leads the way in driverless transportation? If the past few years of competing with Silicon Valley prove anything, it’s not enough to be home to General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and some 60 of the nation’s top 100 suppliers.

You need intellectual and entrepreneurial horsepower, too. Cambridge, Mass., has it with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Palo Alto has it with Stanford University. And Michigan theoretically has it all within a 90-minute drive or less to Midtown, Ann Arbor and East Lansing, advanced engineering, manufacturing and programming capability that could carve an attractive — and more affordable — place in Detroit to work and innovate.

“Where are we going to source the young entrepreneurs, the young talent?” asks Chris Thomas, a founder of Fontinalis Partners, a Detroit-based venture capital firm that invests in spaces related to mobility, autonomy and cybersecurity. “We need an institute that will create that virtuous cycle.”

He’s right. Developing it will take leadership from public universities and private industry, vision to see clearly the opportunity and the challenges. Just a few years ago, these kinds of things would not be possible. Today they are, and that makes all the difference.


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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.