Duggan: Universal preschool needed for neighborhood revitalization

Breana Noble
The Detroit News
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, center, speaks about the city neighborhoods in during the 2019 Detroit Economic Club luncheon along with Gary Torogow, from left, chairman of Chemical Financial Corp., Alicia George, founder of Java House & Artist Village Detroit, and moderator Stephen Henderson at Cobo Center on Tuesday.

Detroit — Mayor Mike Duggan said Tuesday the city is putting together a proposal it hopes to release in the coming months to fund universal preschool as it looks to invigorate its outer neighborhoods.

"We can fix all the houses we want and incentivize all the businesses we want," Duggan said at a Detroit Economic Club meeting. "But if our children aren't learning in the schools, this city is going to be terribly hampered."

As new buildings rise and old ones get new life in Detroit's downtown, Midtown and Corktown, many have left wondering when that revitalization is coming to the city's outer neighborhoods. Efforts already are being made through initiatives such as the Strategic Neighborhood Fund, Duggan said.

Before the end of the year, the fund is looking to raise more than $100 million from corporate and philanthropic partners to help spur additional investment and physical change in 10 neighborhood clusters across the city that represent a significant portion of Detroiters.

It was the method used in Midtown more than a decade ago that has helped to make it a household name, Duggan said.

"Let me duplicate this 10 more times and over the next few years," he said, "we’re going to see if this succeeds."

One of the largest challenges to attracting and retaining residents is the struggling school system in the city. Duggan said funding preschool for all of Detroit's children is the next step to improve academic performance, a project the mayor said in October was in the works.

"Quality Head Start for 4-year-olds has a huge advantage coming to school ready to read," Duggan said. "I really would like for parents in the city to know that your child at 4 years old has a full day of preschool. That's our goal, and I think with the new governor we're going to get it done."

Like the Strategic Neighborhood Fund, the initiative would involve an effort from the city and philanthropic and corporate support as well as assistance from the state, Duggan said. Federal money is also available, he said. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has not made any promises on such a proposal, though Duggan said he spoke with her about it last week.

Since launching the second leg of the Strategic Neighborhood Fund last year, the city has raised about $53 million.

Several major companies in the region last month made a commitment of $35 million to the fund over five years. The contributors include Chemical, Fifth Third, Huntington and Flagstar banks, as well as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, American Axle & Manufacturing and Penske Corp.

The investments will allow the city to create new parks and add amenities to existing ones as well as pave streets and sidewalks. The money will also assist with renovating and preserving vacant houses to build up affordable housing.

Another goal is to help fund small businesses to set up shop in blighted storefronts along commercial corridors that have struggled for decades.

The collaboration, led by Chemical Bank, follows the bank's announcement last year that it is building a new tower at Woodward Avenue and Elizabeth Street for its new headquarters.

"There is nothing more vital to the success of a community and the success of a bank if it's not home-lending, if it's not (lending to) small business," Chemical Bank Chairman Gary Torgow said. "Since we are so invested in the city and in the community, we realize that without the neighborhoods on the rebound, Detroit will never have the revitalization it wants. ... Banks play a key role in that effort."

The investments will be focused in seven neighborhoods: Campau/Banglatown, East Warren/Cadieux, Grand River Northwest, Gratiot/Seven Mile, Jefferson Chalmers, Russell Woods/Nardin Park and Warrendale/Cody-Rouge.

That includes Old Redford, where Alicia George set up shop as the Motor City Java House in 2010. George struggled to obtain a loan to open her cafe, but with the support of her neighborhoods, gathered enough to buy her storefront and open with a single pound cake and a coffee maker.

Today, the Java House has grown as a place for the community with a garden, studio and gallery, George said. It soon also will operate a bed and breakfast.

"It made me stronger," George said of the obstacles she faced. "It made us stronger. It made us see that we can all come together and make something happen. The banks, they help. They lift you up, but the answer lies in you, in your community, in your neighborhood."

Now, George said the fund will be the "antidote" to further help her and other neighborhoods thrive.

The seven neighborhoods join three others the city already has identified for redevelopment. Those are Livernois/McNichols, Southwest/West Vernor and Islandview/Greater Villages.

Marilyn Mayberry, an associate broker at Real Estate Today LLC, said her mother lives in the Livernois neighborhood and she owns property there.

"It's good see the development happening there," Mayberry said. "They're working on some (housing) units and some retail. A Biggby just opened. Once you get new stuff there, they'll be coming."

Other efforts already being done in neighborhoods include restoring street lights, ensuring trash collection, improving bus service and shortening police and firefighter response times.