Duggan touts Detroit's high unemployment rate as 'competitive advantage'

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan poses for a selfie with Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, left, R-Clarklake, and Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield, right, R-Levering, Thursday at the Mackinac Policy Conference.

The unemployment rate in Detroit is double the state and national average but Mayor Mike Duggan said Thursday it's among the selling points that helped land a new Chrysler plant.

Duggan, during a keynote address at the annual Mackinac Policy Conference, highlighted the challenge as a "competitive advantage" in attracting big business and new residents.

The city's recovery thus far has focused on service improvements and knocking out blight. But now, it's about leveraging Detroit's available workforce, vacant land, the auto industry and riverfront, he said. 

Detroit's 8.8 percent unemployment rate, he said, is often thought of as a "bad thing."

"But here's the thing I know, if you need to hire hundreds of workers, do you want to go where there's an available workforce where they can be trained and work hard or go where everybody else is already working," he said. 

It's a notion that Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV's late CEO Sergio Marchionne first thought was crazy when Duggan said he first pitched it. 

"But over time, the logic becomes clear," Duggan said.

Last week, Detroit’s Council approved a complex set of land agreements and a benefits package for the community associated with a Chrysler plant on the east side that’s expected to bring thousands of jobs.

The city, through it's Detroit at Work program, has committed to recruiting residents for Chrysler jobs. 

More than 20,000 have already provided text numbers to request applications, Duggan said Thursday. 

"What we have in the city are just hardworking people who just need a chance," he said. 

Detroit at Work, he said, is also looking for employment partners located in the city or opening there that will commit to “banning the box” — eliminating questions about past felony convictions on job applications — and sign on to FCA-type agreements that commit to giving Detroiters first dibs on applying for work.

The mayor opened his speech by rehashing past efforts to tackle the city's population decline, dismal services and 40,000 abandoned houses.

Duggan has long touted his goal of stemming the exodus from Detroit. The city's population has continued to drop in recent years, but new-released U.S. Census estimates show the most recent losses were small compared to past years.

The city's population was 672,662 as of last summer, a loss of 1,526. The previous year's loss was 2,695.

One thing to aid that battle, Duggan said, is removing the financial burden of car insurance. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Thursday morning signed a no-fault auto reform bill that when it goes into effect is expected to alleviate some of the costs.

"It was a huge financial penalty for people wanting to be in the city," he said. 

The mayor also covered efforts of the Strategic Neighborhood Fund, a philanthropic partnership that's redeveloping neighborhood corridors and outlined plans for a $200 million bond issue to wipe out the city's remaining 18,000 blighted properties by 2024.