CityLab attendees focus on innovation, opportunity

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York City and founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies welcomes CityLab participants.

Detroit — Strategies to improve services and residential quality of life with fewer resources is the focus of City Halls across the globe convening in post-bankrupt Detroit.

Efforts from California to Athens, Greece, were covered during a panel discussion Monday at CityLab Detroit, a program convening for its sixth year with a theme of "opportunity" to bring together more than 600 city and civic leaders from 156 cities across 27 countries.

"We recognize there’s never enough money, never enough resources and never enough staff to accomplish what we want to accomplish,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said. 

“We had to figure out how we could deliver services that our residents reasonably expected with fewer resources than anyone should have. We knew we needed more partnerships ... doing the same thing, the same way wouldn't work for us."

For example, data has aided San Jose in identifying dangerous buildings to better direct its remaining code enforcement staff, he said.

Detroit, meanwhile, was held up during the segment as a model for its philanthropic partnerships, including an endeavor that overhauled its grants management system, said George McCarthy, president and CEO of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. 

Prior to bankruptcy, Detroit had been leaving about $100 million in mismanaged federal grant dollars on the table annually. But with help from the Ford and Kresge foundations, a centralized grants management system was put in place. McCarthy also noted foundation support for information technology upgrades and obstacles small businesses are faced with in Detroit.

In Athens, leaders created a vice mayor on innovation position to focus on addressing social concerns, said Mayor Giorgos Kaminis, who said he came into office amid a "multidimensional crisis."

“There was a political, social and even moral crisis,” he said. “We had to find ways to do things in a different way. We had to rebuild confidence and trust with the citizens.”

Kaminis also noted the Athens Partnership, an initiative launched in 2015 with foundation support and guidance from Bloomberg Associates. The partnership is facilitating more than a dozen initiatives in coordination with the Municipality of Athens and global philanthropic leaders and its helped Athens lower taxes for businesses and boost jobs and tourism, he said.

The CityLab speakers are among 120 expected to come together at the Marriott in the Detroit Renaissance Center over two days to discuss technology, mobility, gun violence and the national opioid epidemic.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan opened the program on Monday, speaking early about Detroit's rebirth and its focus on ensuring residents benefit from the city's financial recovery.

Duggan talked about the city's challenges when he took office: broken streetlights, dismal emergency response, broken-down buses and 40,000 blighted homes.

He then credited Bloomberg for stepping in to aid the city in crafting its "Occupied Buy Back" program. The effort helps Detroit residents who have lost their homes to foreclosure buy it back from the Detroit land bank.

"He (Bloomberg) has helped us design our recovery," Duggan said. "We are two years ahead of we would be if it wasn't for this mayor."

Duggan, during a morning panel session on "unleashing opportunity," noted the recent investment by Ford Motor Co. in the shuttered Michigan Central Station in Corktown and billionaire businessman Dan Gilbert's efforts to build anew at the former Hudson's site on Woodward Avenue.

"We are using our recovery to benefit all of our residents," said Duggan, noting hiring requirements on major construction projects and job training programs.

Duggan discussed Detroit's efforts to rehabilitate city neighborhoods, its massive federally funded demolition and home auction programs as well as the Detroit Promise, a program that provides two-year and four-year degrees to qualified Detroit high school graduates. 

He also said the city hopes to soon roll out a universal pre-K program for four-year-olds.

The mayor closed by saying that the federal government needs to solve the immigration fight, saying that it "has hurt Detroit's recovery." Detroit had been a community taking in Syrian refugees.

"I wish the Republicans in Washington would come together once and for all and solve this issue," he said.

On a lighter note, Duggan said most city leaders he’s talked with have inquired about the arrival and growth of motorized scooters in Detroit.

“We appear to be the only city in the country that cracked the scooter code,” he told The Detroit News after the session. “Everybody wants to know about how we made the scooters work so smoothly when there’s so much drama in other places. I would have never thought scooters would be a subject of intense interest.”

CityLab, organized by the Aspen Institute, the Atlantic and Bloomberg Philanthropies and has previously taken place in Paris, Miami, London, Los Angeles and New York.

Among the scheduled speakers are Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid; Ford Foundation CEO Darren Walker; Gilbert; and film production designer Hannah Beachler, whose credits include "Black Panther" and "Moonlight."

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg on Monday stressed the importance of the annual gathering, telling attendees that "progress is still possible" despite the political "chaos and division" in Washington D.C.

"I don't think there could be a better time for communities to reassert their rightful role as leaders in innovative government," Bloomberg told a crowd gathered in a ballroom of the hotel. "Because on every issue that matters, local communities are charting the way forward and proving that Democracy in the 21st Century can work for all people."

Ron Brownstein, senior editor of The Atlantic, leads the discussion "Unleashing Opportunity" with Detroit Mayor Michael Duggan and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.