Obama plans to see Detroit’s progress for himself

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — President Barack Obama plans to visit with Detroit’s residents Wednesday to witness the city’s progress firsthand as part of his trip that includes a tour of the auto show, administration officials said Monday.

After Detroit filed for bankruptcy restructuring in July 2013, Obama created a federal coordinator and an interagency Detroit Working Group to help 20 federal agencies assist the community. The federal government has since invested $300 million in Detroit through grants and programs involving blight demolition, transportation and public lighting.

“He’s going to have a discussion about Detroit’s resurgence in terms of what it means for them, what it means for their families, and what it means for the future of a really iconic American city,” Detroit native Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, told reporters on a Monday call.

During his trip, Obama also will visit the North American International Auto Show in an effort to showcase the record auto sales of 2015, the 640,000 new auto-industry jobs created since the auto bailout, and emerging technologies that will help reduce the nation’s dependence on oil and keep the industry competitive, officials said.

Obama will then head to a training and education center for United Auto Workers members and General Motors Co. employees to deliver remarks.

The Obama administration’s one government approach has supported Mayor Mike Duggan, city officials and neighborhood advocates, Munoz said, noting city milestones such as cutting Detroit unemployment by half to its lowest point since 2003. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, Wayne County’s unemployment rate was 6.2 percent in November.

“This help is emblematic of a different kind of approach that the administration has been taking these past seven years to engaging in local communities,” eliminating a “top-down” setup to better customize its help and achieve local goals, said Shaun Donovan, director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

The effort included “embedding” full-time federal staff inside city government to help identify federal resources to help Detroit, cut through red tape when challenges arose and ultimately co-develop solutions with the community, Donovan said.

“Not a one-size-fits-all approach, but a customized approach really based on the vision and input of the local community,” he said.

Among the federally supported projects tailored to Detroit’s needs has been $130 million in federal funds for blight removal, allowing the city to demolish more than 7,500 blighted buildings in fewer than two years. It was a Treasury Department redirection of unspent money from the 2009 Hardest Hit Fund mortgage aid program.

To begin illuminating Detroit’s dark streetlights (nearly half its inventory), the U.S. Department of Energy provided technical assistance to the Public Lighting Authority to install LED lights, with an estimated $3 million in annual cost savings for Detroit.

In addition, a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation allowed Detroit to purchase 80 new city buses so Detroit could run on a full bus schedule for the first time in decades.

Without the additional buses, the city could not have offered 24-hour bus service on some routes this week, including the No. 53 Woodward and No. 34 Gratiot, said Alexis Wiley, chief of staff to Duggan.

Federal advisers were instrumental to helping the city secure a Department of Labor grant for the city’s prisoner-reentry program and $8.9 million to invest in green infrastructure projects from the Department of Housing and Urban Development after the August 2014 floods.

Wiley said White House and agency staffers are in Detroit at least three days a week or constantly on conference calls with city employees.

“They really have a sense for the needs and can quickly suggest and plug in when it comes to identifying resources and pushing the city’s agenda. They’ve been a tremendous asset for us,” Wiley said.

Among the projects that the city continues to discuss with federal officials are expanding Detroit’s youth employment program and securing more aid for blight elimination, Wiley said.

“It really does show the president’s commitment to Detroit. He’s embedded a team of talented people who could be working in Washington but are working in the city of Detroit, and have a clear understanding of the needs of the city and are working hard to make sure things are addressed, and are working just as hard as we are,” she said.

“They are the reason that we are getting so many federal resources into the city.”


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