Panel discusses issues affecting Detroit, region

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News
Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson (left), Wayne County Executive Warren Evans (center) and Henry Ford Health System President Wright Lassiter III discuss issues impacting the region at the Michigan Chronicle's Pancakes & Politics event Thursday at the Detroit Athletic Club.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Henry Ford Health System President and CEO Wright Lassiter III and Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson Thursday talked about what they love about the city, future projects and immigration.

The trio served as panelists in a discussion hosted by the Michigan Chronicle as part of its Pancakes & Politics series. Founded in 1936, the Michigan Chronicle is a weekly newspaper that serves Metro Detroit's African-American community.

About 350 people attended Thursday's breakfast meeting that featured the hour-long panel discussion, according to officials.

The three men discussed "Important Issues Affecting Southeast Michigan" at the event, held at the Detroit Athletic Club in downtown Detroit. Ignition Media Group CEO Dennis Archer Jr. served as the moderator.

Thursday's roundtable discussion was the fourth and final event in the Michigan Chronicle's annual Pancakes & Politics.

The first subject the panel tackled was what they loved about doing business in Detroit.

Lassiter said he loves the area's drive to keep improving. 

"There's a great spirit of innovation here," he said. "There are a lot of folks who are open to new things and trying new things. What I really enjoy about doing business here is that you can do a lot of purposeful tinkering. There's a lot of transformation, a hotbed for innovation and partnerships here."

Henry Ford Health System is a $6 billion enterprise with a health plan, six hospitals, more than 60 clinical locations and 30,000 employees. Lassiter joined Henry Ford Health in December 2014. Before that, he was CEO of Alameda Health System in Oakland, California.

The panel also talked about their organization's future plans.

Evans mentioned the project to build the county a new jail and the recent purchase of the Michigan Central Depot in Detroit.

Earlier this month, the Wayne County Commission approved a $533 million proposal from businessman Dan Gilbert to build a criminal justice complex that would allow the county to shutter its aging jail and court facilities.

Earlier this week, Ford Motor Co. announced its plans to redevelop the vacant Michigan Central Depot in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood.

"I remember how dismal things looked for the county three to four years ago," he said. "We must have done something right." 

Wayne County is Michigan's most populous county with more than 1.7 million residents. 

Evans also talked about the need for regional mass transit. In March, he introduced a 20-year regional transit proposal that needs voters to approve a $5.4 billion tax. He and other leaders are pushing to have the measure put on the ballot in the future.

Henry Ford Health System plans to expand its global presence by opening hospitals overseas, Lassiter said.

The company is working to open a medical center in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, next summer and a hospital in India by 2020.

He also mentioned the health system announced last month it was opening a new medical center on Telegraph Road north of Square Lake Road in Bloomfield Hills next year.

"We know that health care is best delivered closer to home," Lassiter said. "We're also looking at another project somewhere in the 10 Mile Road area and we'll make an announcement later this summer."

Meanwhile, Wayne State University plans to look at ways to alleviate Detroit's "societal issues," Wilson said.

He said the low rate at which African-Americans in Detroit are getting bachelor's degrees is one those problems.

"I think what we try to do here to level the playing field to make sure kids of all backgrounds can get a degree and close that income gap is going to be important, not only for this region, but for this society," Wilson said.

Founded in 1868 as the Detroit Medical College, Wayne State has more than 27,000 students and more than 2,500 faculty members. It also is one of the 50th largest public universities in the country. 

Another issue the university will be looking at tackling is the disparities in Detroiters' health.

"There are zip codes in the city where you're going to live 13 fewer years than in another zip code and that's not right," Wilson said. "We're going to be looking very intently at population health.

"I think Wayne State can have an impact in both of these areas." 

However, Lassiter and Wilson declined to discuss reports they are negotiating an affiliation deal in the wake of WSU's split from the Detroit Medical Center.

"Like most organizations, we don't comment on potential partnerships until there is an actual partnership," Lassiter said. "But I would say Roy and I are very committed to a number of things and one is trying to make Detroit a better place for everyone who lives and works here."

He added Henry Ford Health and the university have a longstanding partnership in the training of future doctors and medical personnel. 

"And we'll continue that as long as I am alive and in this role," Lassiter said.

Wilson said he didn't have a lot more to add to Lassiter's remarks.

"We started 150 years ago as the Detroit Medical College and our mission and vision has always been the same," he said. "Whatever we do in the future, it'll be true to what our mission is. It'll be to improve the health of this community."

Twitter: @CharlesERamirez