Morouns face corporate responsibility questions

Bankole Thompson

In the classic economic primer “The Wealth of Nations,” Adam Smith wrote: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”

And no place better exemplifies Smith’s thesis of how the economically powerful respond to the needs of the collective than southwest Detroit, a diverse and majority Latino community that knows deep poverty and misery.

Southwest Detroit is one of the city’s poorest sections in terms of housing affordability as well as educational attainment, according to most recent statistics.

For example 46.6 percent of the area’s residents do not have a high school diploma, which is twice the city average of 23.2 percent, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The survey also found that 39.1 percent of homeowners and 53.7 percent of renters are spending more than 30 percent of their household gross income on housing, which is the accepted standard for such spending.

The picture of the socioeconomic disparity in that community is what’s been missing in the ongoing debate between its residents and the family of billionaire Manuel “Matty” Moroun regarding the Riverside Park land swap deal.

The Morouns are seeking three acres of property next to Riverside Park and in return they are promising Detroit up to $5 million to improve the park and to install new windows at the dilapidated Michigan Central Depot, which has stood for decades without a face-lift. The deal also could allow the Morouns to build a second span of the Ambassador Bridge that they also own.

The Detroit City Council on Tuesday approved the deal in a 7-2 vote that Mayor Mike Duggan hailed as a great day for families in southwest Detroit.

“As everybody knows, the Moroun family are major employers in the city, they’re major property owners in this city and we’re looking to build stronger relationships,” Duggan had said during an earlier news conference announcing the pact with the Morouns, who have had a contentious relationship with the city.

The Morouns made their fortune in southwest Detroit through business associated with the Detroit International Bridge Co., which operates the bridge, while the surrounding area for the most part looks like a Third World nation.

This sudden desire by the Morouns to want to address longtime outstanding code violations and related fines to acquire a parcel of land perceived as crucial to their financial empire leaves many residents suspicious.

“Historically, the Moroun family has done minimal in our community. There is no guarantee that they will even follow through with what they are saying in this deal,” said Maria Salinas, a community advocate in southwest Detroit. “There is a big mistrust between Matty Moroun and our community.”

Salinas said Moroun neglected the abandoned train station for years “and never did anything to upgrade or renovate it.”

“We love the mayor and want to trust him,” she said. “But the truth is that history hasn’t allowed us to trust Matty Moroun and his family.”

Salinas, an environmentalist who spent nearly two decades working at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, led projects to address health issues in the area that she said resulted from the environmental impact of the Ambassador Bridge.

“Southwest Detroit has one of the highest asthma rates for both children and adults in the country,” Salinas explained. “The land is valuable to the Morouns, but there is no price for human health.”

Salinas, 55, who was born a mile away from the bridge, said she wants the conversation surrounding the deal to address serious economic and health issues which are facing that community.

Smith’s theories in “The Wealth of Nations” would justify the suspicions of the community toward the Morouns.

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” the economist wrote.

History shows the Morouns will use all sorts of tactics to guard their financial interests, much like the more than $30 million they spent recently in fighting the state of Michigan and Gov. Rick Snyder’s negotiations to build another bridge across the Detroit River that stands to compete with their business. The Morouns also are known to deploy community “surrogates” to speak on their behalf.

“They came in and got some stakeholders in our community behind closed doors, but that is not real community engagement,” Salinas said.

Give Duggan credit for trying to build new relationships. But creating a new relationship with the Morouns in advancing such a public/private partnership also requires city leadership to listen to the residents who have a deep history with this American scion.

Matt Moroun, the son of Manuel “Matty” Moroun, has been taking the lead in this effort and becoming more and more visible in contrast to his father’s behind-the-scenes demeanor.

The deal’s most vocal critic is Detroit City Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, who represents southwest Detroit.

“Is this a good deal for the community, and does it really protect the interest of southwest Detroit considering its already going to be sandwiched between two bridges?” she asked.

Economic disparity will remain an issue in southwest Detroit and will continue to drive the conversation about how that community advances. And the resident voices need to be heard in debates like that of Riverside Park.

The contemporary economist Thomas Piketty, whose book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” triggered debates about economic fairness when it comes to the growing mass underclass, wrote: “Capitalism and market forces are very powerful in producing wealth and innovation. But we need to ensure that these forces act in the common interest.” That is exactly what southwest Detroit wants.

Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on WDET-101.9FM at 11 a.m. Thursdays. His column appears Thursdays.