Duggan vows neighborhood, business growth
Detroit — Mayor Mike Duggan is starting off his second term with plans for vibrant neighborhood corridors and getting more Detroiters back to work.
Coming off his overwhelming defeat of state Sen. Coleman A. Young II in November’s election, the 59-year-old Duggan says his efforts now are moving toward extending the post-bankrupt city’s recovery and “making sure Detroiters get opportunities.”
“We’ve got great advocates for downtown and Midtown in the private sector. We need to have great advocates for businesses in neighborhoods,” Duggan said in a recent sit-down interview with The Detroit News. “And that’s going to be the next big push.”
Among his initiatives, the administration plans to hire seven new deputy district managers for small business by the end of this month and deploy them in each council district to help fill vacant storefronts, aid entrepreneurs and put residents to work.
Quicken Loans founder and Chairman Dan Gilbert, whose family of companies employs about 17,000 in the city, agrees jobs in Detroit must be the first priority. Gilbert and Duggan have joined forces on numerous projects to develop and strengthen the city, and the two routinely appear together at major initiatives and projects.
“Anybody in Detroit who wants to work and can work, in my opinion, should be able to have an opportunity to get into the workforce,” Gilbert told The News. “That’s (Duggan’s) view as well.”
Duggan’s first term, Gilbert noted, has brought progress in the “big four” categories: blight, crime, education and jobs.
The city this summer celebrated an 8.4 percent jobless rate — its lowest since 2001, based on figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last year, it also recorded its lowest number of homicides since 1966.
At the same time, neighborhood property values are climbing, and Detroit has torn down upward of 13,300 blighted homes under a federally funded program despite being under heavy scrutiny by the federal government.
The successes, Gilbert said, are reflected in Duggan’s landslide re-election. .
“Everybody is taking note of that,” he said. “I think he has a mandate to continue the job he’s done.”
Duggan focused heavily on improving basic city services in his first four years and made progress on rebuilding business districts in some neighborhoods. The mayor said he’s now hoping to extend those efforts.
In October, Detroit’s council signed off on a $125 million bond program to revitalize a couple of dozen key commercial corridors. The enhancements are part of a broader $317 million plan to improve 300 miles of roadway and replace 300,000 damaged city sidewalks over the next five years, Duggan said.
Under the plan, major infrastructure improvements are planned in the Livernois-McNichols, West Vernor and East Warren districts, among others. The upgrades will range from landscaping to bike lanes, improved on-street parking and wider sidewalks.
“So now, the question is ‘OK, how do I, as a Detroiter, apply to the companies who are bidding on this work? How do I get hired? What kind of training do I need?’ ” Duggan said.
Detroit, he said, has found success with programs such as Motor City Match and the Entrepreneurs of Color Fund. But this term, Duggan hopes to ramp up participation in Detroit at Work, an initiative his administration rolled out last winter that he regards as a key part of the city’s effort to reduce joblessness. The program aims to better connect city job seekers with employers through training.
“We haven’t made Detroiters conscious enough of all the opportunities there are,” he said. “A goal in 2018 is we’re going to break through.”
Council President Brenda Jones said creating and retaining jobs remains a top priority for the City Council this term, too. Jones is working on legislation geared toward ensuring Detroit-based and headquartered businesses are sharing in more city projects.
“I will be working hard to try to make sure we move forward the agendas for the people in the communities in the neighborhoods,” she said. “I want to ensure that we are not losing our small businesses in the city of Detroit.”
But even if more Detroiters take advantage of job training resources, they still face a series of barriers. Chiefly, “unconscionable” auto insurance rates, Duggan said.
“All you’ve got to do is ask the average Detroiter, what is the biggest downside of living in Detroit?” he said. “They will all say car insurance.”
The mayor last year was pushing an auto insurance reform bill that was defeated in November in the state House. Before that, a city-initiated proposal to lower rates failed to gain enough support. Duggan said he remains optimistic that there will be buy-in for the proposal among lawmakers.
“Two years ago, I was 10 votes away. This year, we were three votes away. This next cycle, we’ll be there,” Duggan said. “We’re getting closer. ... It’ll be maybe 2018, maybe 2019, but it’s coming.”
No ‘two Detroits’
In a separate effort to improve transit, Duggan last week said regional leaders have revived talks about a potential millage for the November ballot.
Voters narrowly rejected a tax hike more than two years ago that would have expanded mass transit in southeastern Michigan. A timetable on the announcement, Duggan said, is “not going to be very long.”
Robin Boyle, a professor with Wayne State University’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning, credited Duggan for his assertive position on regional collaboration. He also stressed that an improved city school system will be key in how far Detroit’s neighborhood revitalization goes.
“There is a genuine awareness that taking policies and programs, initiatives and spending into Detroit neighborhoods is clearly on the agenda,” he said. “The question is: How do you do that? How do you get families to invest in the neighborhoods if the schools are still unacceptable to many?”
Now that the city’s downtown, New Center, Corktown and West Village areas are making money, Duggan said he wants to show developers the same successes can be had in city neighborhoods.
“That’s when you are going to see development really take off,” he said.
Although the city’s core is booming, many areas continue to struggle with blight, and Detroit’s poverty and crime rates remain among the highest in the nation.
Duggan, however, says he rejects the narrative of “two Detroits,” calling it “90 percent media.”
“Everybody understands in any city in America there are wealthy areas and poor areas,” he said. “What the real question is, is not ‘are there people here who are better off than I am?’ The question people have is, ‘is there a path for me to gain skills, raise my standard of living, improve my neighborhood and have better opportunities here?’ And that’s what we’re working on building.”
Gilbert said he, too, views the city as “one Detroit.” To have neighborhoods thrive in any major city, he said, there has to be a strong urban core.
But for lifelong residents like Michael Miller, the division between the growth downtown and its neighborhoods is real.
“I was born and raised in the inner city. The neighborhoods are actually getting worse. You can’t cover it up,” said Miller, 39, who now lives in Detroit’s Sherwood Forest neighborhood.
“The mayor’s plan going forward, he said, “sounds good,” but “how many times have you heard something that sounds good?”
East side resident Mark Covington said Detroit has made progress in the last four years. A neighborhood focus, he said, is what’s needed now.
“Everything (Duggan) has accomplished so far, I hope it continues,” said Covington, who lives near City Airport. “I’m hoping that he stays true to his word that this next four years his focus will be in the neighborhoods.”
Business growth focus
Detroit, the mayor said, has made strides in building density in its downtown and Midtown with development projects led in part by the billionaire Ilitch family and Gilbert.
Gilbert’s Bedrock Detroit has four transformational projects in the works to redefine the downtown. Gilbert said the city is likely to see its biggest construction boom since the 1920s.
“We’ve got a city that’s growing again, that’s going to be building things. You are seeing economic activity and hope,” he said. “Not just downtown buildings, but there’s neighborhoods coming online now for the first time in decades.”
Duggan said the city has a “clear plan” on where it’s going and Gilbert’s initiatives “absolutely are woven into that plan.”
Gilbert also recently led a bid committee that crafted a plan to lure Amazon to Detroit for a second headquarters.
Duggan said he believes the city remains competitive among the North American cities that submitted proposals to the Seattle-based online retail giant last fall. Gilbert also is optimistic.
“If you look at all rational reasoning of what they need and what we have and where we sit geographically and everything else, I believe we should be one of the top favorites for this thing,” Gilbert said.
Duggan also has made a point of being judged on Detroit’s population growth. He believes updated figures expected this spring will show the city grew in 2017, reversing a 60-year decline. Detroit has been losing people since it hit a peak population of 1.85 million in 1950. But in recent years that decline has dramatically slowed.
When Duggan took office Jan. 1, 2014, the city’s population was around 680,000. As of last summer, it was estimated at 672,795.
The administration has also touted an unprecedented demolition program that’s brought down more than 13,300 blighted houses since spring 2014. But the effort hasn’t been without controversy.
The program has been the focus of a federal criminal investigation as well as state and local reviews amid concerns over soaring costs and bidding practices that came to light in 2015.
The News reported in June that a federal grand jury is focused on whether federal money was misappropriated while Detroit spent nearly $200 million to tear down homes after the city’s bankruptcy.
Duggan has said he hopes the investigation is speedy and anyone who did wrong should be held accountable. If they didn’t, he said, they should be cleared.
The mayor last week quickly also shot down inquiries over whether he may throw his hat into the ring for the 2018 race for Michigan’s governor, reiterating he has no plans to leave his position in Detroit.
He hasn’t publicly pledged support yet to any other candidates in the race, but last month established the Duggan Leadership Fund, an independent political action committee to throw financial support behind candidates in that race as well as congressional and state legislative races where “Detroit’s interests lie.”
“The filing deadline is a couple months away, and I’m watching the candidates,” said Duggan, about the gubernatorial race. “I’m looking to see who is going to articulate a vision that most resonates with Detroiters, and I will get strongly behind a candidate before the primary is over.”