Rip Rapson: Visionary with a focus on Detroit

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

A colleague at another institution once warned Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation, that he was taking on too much: the M-1 Rail, the Detroit riverfront, Detroit Future City and a raft of neighborhood arts-and-development projects.

“ ‘Rip, you can’t do all this at once,’ ” Rapson recalled the individual saying. “Detroit has enough trouble getting one thing done. Just pick one thing.”

Rapson said, “I’m sorry — I’m not from here, and I don’t understand that.”

Rapson, one-time Minneapolis deputy mayor, landed in Detroit in 2006 from the McKnight Foundation armed with optimism and the conviction that Detroit could be turned around.

“I saw Detroit as a great city that had lost hold of its greatness,” Rapson said. With the support of his board, Rapson reoriented the $3.5 billion foundation to make Detroit one of its chief concerns.

These days, Kresge is all over the city helping revitalize the troubled Osborn neighborhood, cementing Detroit’s new artsy reputation with much-sought-after fellowships and supporting the New Economy Initiative, which aims to return Detroit to its position as a global economic leader.

But it was Kresge’s role during Detroit’s bankruptcy that’s probably its most famous contribution to date.

As Rapson tells it, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Gerald Rosen — an old tennis buddy from their days in Washington, D.C. — invited Rapson and his wife to dinner, where the judge laid out his preliminary ideas for the “grand bargain.”

That bargain was built around huge investments from local and national foundations, as well as the state of Michigan and the Detroit Institute of Arts, designed to cushion cuts to Detroit pensioners and safeguard the museum’s collection. Because of its size and local importance, Kresge, Rosen said, had to be one of the first to step forward.

So Rapson not only committed $100 million from Kresge, he got his friend, Darren Walker, head of the Ford Foundation in New York, to put up $125 million.

“Darren and I agreed early on that we needed to come in at about the same level to send an unequivocal message to our colleagues,” Rapson said.

The message worked. Ten local and national foundations ultimately contributed $366 million to the total $816 million package that resolved the bankruptcy.

Still, Rapson argues the purpose of the grand bargain is widely misunderstood.

While it did help pensioners and protect the DIA, he noted, the real point was “to resolve the bankruptcy and take litigation off the table. If the bankruptcy had endured,” he added, “none of what foundations were working on in Detroit could succeed.”

Susan Mosey, executive director of Midtown Detroit Inc., credits Kresge’s willingness to tackle the macro along with the micro.

“One of the reasons Rip’s had a tremendous impact on the whole Detroit landscape,” Mosey said, “is because Kresge is working at multiple levels — from big transformative stuff like the bankruptcy, riverfront and M-1 Rail, to individual neighborhoods.”

Rapson’s belief that the city will eventually triumph opened eyes, suggests Katy Locker, Detroit program director for the Knight Foundation.

“Rip’s a remarkable public speaker,” Locker said. “He’s really elevated national and international conversations about Detroit.”

For his part, Rapson’s never regretted the move from Minneapolis to Detroit. “If you’re interested in urban issues and opportunity structures,” he said, “this is a phenomenal place to see if you can make a difference.”

What does Rapson see as his biggest accomplishment?

“Helping both foundations and the community think differently about philanthropy’s role in civic affairs.”

Michael H. Hodges

Rip Rapson

Age: 63

Occupation: President and CEO, Kresge Foundation

Education: Bacherlor’s degree, Pomona College; Juris Doctorate, Columbia University Law School

Family: Wife, Gail; two children

Honored for: Putting Detroit at the center of the Kresge Foundation’s concerns.