Column: Ford’s better idea for Dearborn

Jack O'Reilly

Ford has a better idea.

Some of us remember that advertising line from the 1960s, when the company was showing how forward thinking and innovation driven by careful listening to customers led to exciting new vehicles.

Now Ford has another better idea: remaking its Dearborn Research and Engineering complex and World Headquarters campus.

The company’s planned $1.2 billion remake of the Dearborn campuses, where more than 30,000 people spend eight to 10 hours of their day in some 70 buildings, will emphasize placemaking traits that many of us want to use in our cities. Walkable. Bikeable. Transit-available. Technology-centric. Energy smart. Sustainable.

Ford President and CEO Mark Fields puts it this way: “We’re investing in our people and the tools they use to deliver our vision,” he said. “Bringing our teams together in an open, collaborative environment will make our employees’ lives better, speed decision-making and deliver results for both our core and emerging businesses.”

Around the nation, successful central cities are using these qualities to remake themselves to become more attractive to young college grads, empty-nesters, and others who want to live, work, and play in downtown areas. The Michigan Municipal League has been preaching the gospel of smart placemaking, and recently issued a whitepaper called “Creating 21st Century Communities, Making the Economic Case for Place.”

This document identifies eight assets that communities need if they are going to succeed:

Walkable: People want to live in a community where they can walk from home to store to office. Mixed-use, walkable downtown developments generate 10 times as much tax revenue per acre as does sprawl-oriented development.

Transit and bike-friendly: Transit systems that address the needs of walkers, bikers, bus and rail passengers as well as cars are driving economic prosperity and growth.

Environmentally sustainable: Parks and trails help attract and retain young professionals and increase property values. Green buildings and energy sustainability add value and reduce long-term costs.

Technology: People want to be connected at all times today. A downtown that offers public Wi-Fi and high-speed internet is one that attracts professionals, as well as businesses.

Open and welcoming to all: Communities with more foreign-born workers are more entrepreneurial and create more jobs. International students will stay in cities that make them feel at home, and will add their talents to the job pool. Young college graduates are attracted to cities that are friendly to the LGBTQ community.

Entrepreneurial activity: Entrepreneurs are attracted to areas that offer the above lifestyle, creating the high-paying jobs every city and state needs.

Arts and culture: Investments in museums, outdoor art and music venues bring people downtown, opening the door to additional investment in restaurants, shopping and night life.

Educationally sound: Young people come to communities for the lifestyle. They stay for good schools. Higher quality schools drive better property values, making the case for more investment.

New census data shows that from 2002-2012, Michigan cities saw their revenues drop by 8 percent, largely due to cuts in state revenue sharing and limitations on property taxes. There is little evidence of any upturn since; in fact, the state proposes no increase in revenue sharing for cities in the budget for next year.

Ford’s better idea for its campuses matches the League’s vision for cities. Both require major investment. Ford makes the case that its rejuvenated campuses will generate new revenues for the company.

Will our state provide the resources, or allow cities to generate their own resources, in a way that allows Michigan cities to invest in their future, too, in a way that generates new opportunity for our state? Our future depends on it.

Jack O’Reilly, mayor of Dearborn, is president of the Michigan Municipal League.