Howes: Biggest believers in Detroit revival? Detroiters

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

For way too long, Detroit was the city too many of its people didn’t believe in. It was a monument to industrial decline: dysfunctional and politically corrupt, anti-business and chronically unable to attract investment.

Not anymore. Billions in private-sector investment are flowing into projects in downtown, in Midtown and increasingly in the neighborhoods. Optimism outweighs pessimism. And evidence keeps mounting that the believers are back and they’re for real, finds the Kresge Foundation’s 2018 Detroit Reinvestment Index, the third such survey in as many years.

Confidence in Detroit’s overall economic rebound remains high, the survey concluded, particularly among people who know best — Detroit residents, who said they’re 94 percent confident in the city’s revitalization.

Confidence in Detroit’s overall economic rebound remains high, the survey concluded, particularly among people who know best — Detroit residents, who said they’re 94 percent confident in the city’s revitalization. And the city’s entrepreneurs? They’re 92 percent confident, and the vast majority of them would recommend operating a small business in Detroit.

“People are hip to what’s really going on here,” Benjy Kennedy, managing director of Kresge’s America Cities practice, said Thursday. “That’s the alchemy of Detroit. We’re doing something very different here.”

He’s right. Look around. Less than a decade ago, Detroit truly reflected its unflattering caricature of urban decay. Store fronts were empty; office space was plentiful and cheap; upscale independent businesses were scarce; and cool spaces like Capitol Park were anything but.

Big local money, its principals deeply knowledgeable about Detroit’s arc of recovery, is the leading edge of investment. To varying degrees, those investors are demonstrating a sensitivity to retaining the authenticity of a place whose architectural character was built largely before World War II.

And since emergence from the bankruptcies that signified hitting rock bottom — for General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Group LLC, and later for the city itself — a new style of leadership has emerged from the corporate sector, philanthropy and politics. It’s prescriptive; it’s cooperative; it’s focused far more on finding solutions than excusing problems. And it’s less partisan.

In Detroit, says Kresge’s Kennedy, there’s the “will and authority” of the public sector, the “scale and intensity” of the private sector, and “the humanity” of the social sector. Each serves, at the same time, to motivate and regulate the other, to ensure the march of progress and redevelopment includes more (and more people) than it leaves behind.

No, it doesn’t always work that way. But as time turns and promised redevelopment becomes reality, the survey suggests that the biggest believers in Detroit’s ability to realize its revitalization are the people closest to what’s changing — the residents.

And instead of pinning hopes for economic revival on the big companies of the Motor City’s bygone glory years, 93 percent of the Detroit residents surveyed by FTI Consulting agree that locally owned small businesses and a strong retail sector “are essential to neighborhood revitalization.”

In its documents detailing the survey, Kresge said: “Consistently, we have heard from national and local audiences that there is confidence in Detroit’s ability to make progress, with Detroit residents — arguably the most discerning and in touch with the realities of the city — being the most bullish about the city’s future growth potential.”

What could drive such a nuanced economic sophistication? Results, for one. Commerce rises to meet demand, and the simple fact is that business reinvestment in downtown, Midtown and such neighborhoods as Corktown are delivering more paying customers to workplaces across the city.

They pay income taxes and pay to park. They buy lunch and stop at Whole Foods on the way home from work. Their dollars circulate in the community, its storefronts increasingly occupied — a stark difference from the ghostly Potemkin Village on lower Woodward during Super Bowl XL a dozen years ago.

The most encouraging part? Three consecutive years of Kresge surveys show a widening number of groups — national business leaders, metro-area entrepreneurs and Detroit residents — expressing growing confidence in the staying power of the city’s reinvention.

That optimism didn’t narrow once two of Detroit’s three automakers normalized operations after Chapter 11 or the city emerged from emerged from bankruptcy. It appears to have expanded, buoyed more evidence the change is real.

“People are fascinated by this town,” said Rip Rapson, Kresge’s CEO. “And it doesn’t seem to be abating. I think it’s, what does it look like to try to rebuild a place?” That, and the fact that Detroit is just getting started.

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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.