Orr: Work still to be done in Detroit after bankruptcy

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Former emergency manager Kevyn Orr reflected Tuesday on the bright spots — and the challenges — of leading Detroit through bankruptcy while cautioning that much work still needs to be done.

In an "exit interview" hosted by the Detroit Economic Club, Orr said he's confident that Detroit has a solid team of "very focused" elected leaders and he believes they will be successful, especially in the short term. But sustained growth is another matter, he said.

"They have the resources," Orr said of the City Council and Mayor Mike Duggan. "But it's not over. People think bankruptcy is the end. It's not the end, it's the start."

Orr didn't take all the credit for Detroit's speedy trip through bankruptcy court, noting that it was a long time coming, and "people don't appreciate" the amount of work that went in before the city filed for bankruptcy in the summer of 2013.

"There's always a risk in bankruptcy. Like the slip and fall practice, you slip and fall into it," Orr remarked. "It's very easy to get into bankruptcy. It's very hard to get out."

He thanked bankruptcy court mediators and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes for resolutions with creditors. And he also touted the willingness of stakeholders — including pensioners, active workers and residents — to reach agreements, calling it "something I will be forever thankful for."

The speaking engagement was the second for Orr this week. On Monday, he appeared before the Economic Club of Grand Rapids to discuss his work leading Detroit through the largest Chapter 9 case in the history of the country. He also was the special guest of Gov. Rick Snyder at last Tuesday's annual State of the State Address.

In his next role, Orr is serving as special counsel to an emergency management team appointed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for Atlantic City.

Orr declined to detail his outlook for Atlantic City, since he's not the emergency manager. But he did note the city is smaller than Detroit and "frankly, its problems are manageable."

Orr, a bankruptcy attorney and former partner at Jones Day, left the law firm to become Detroit's emergency manager in March 2013. The city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy that July. His tenure in Detroit ended last month on the same day the city officially exited bankruptcy.

During the 40-minute Economic Club session, Orr addressed the pushback he faced on certain issues, including the controversial long-term lease of Belle Isle to the state. It was costing Detroit $6 million a year to maintain, and "we didn't have the money," he said.

Orr also reminded the audience that the collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts was at risk for sale prior to a funding commitment known as the "grand bargain." But he stressed he never wanted to sell any DIA masterworks: "I'm not a knuckle-dragger ... I actually like art."

He also noted that the Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport didn't become much of a consideration as an asset for creditors.

"We were perfectly willing to give it to some of our creditors given they were willing to put in certain amount of improvements," he said. "None of them took the bait."

Orr said Tuesday that despite recent concerns raised over the new regional water authority, he's confident it will work out.

Under the agreement, Detroit retains ownership of the water and sewage system, but the suburbs agreed to a 40-year, $50 million annual lease that gives them a bigger stake in operations.

"The elements for that deal are still in place. It still makes sense," he said. "The details still need to be worked out. We all need to be patient and give them the opportunity to do that."

Questioned about risks facing young black men today, Orr said it was an issue that resonated with him as a child and now as a father.

"I don't want (my son) to end up on a slab," he said, noting the need for an urban policy summit on the issue of race and policing.