Finley & Jacques: Duggan on expectations of Detroiters

Nolan Finley, and Ingrid Jacques

Detroiters for so long expected so little from their city government. Now that city services are starting to improve, expectations are also on the rise.

And that’s both a blessing and a curse for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan. In a wide ranging interview during the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference last week, Duggan talked about the urgency of delivering a better quality of life in Detroit.

“Detroiters understand exactly where we are, which is a lot further along than we were two years ago but nowhere near the quality of life that people in the city deserve,” Duggan says.

“If you were to come with me it doesn’t matter what part of the city it is and we stop for gas, someone will come over. They will hug me and get their picture taken and then they will tell me about the neighbor that’s not cutting their grass and what was I going to do to get code enforcement. It’s the way every single conversation goes.”

The intransigent issues — crime and education — remain what keep Duggan awake at night and what most threaten his ability to draw new residents into the city.

But he’s confident Detroiters are buying into his administration’s ability to provide for them the same things their suburban neighbors enjoy.

“We’ve had something like 200 block clubs form in the last two years which is an enormous sign of hope,” he says.

“It is fascinating to see the way the conversation has shifted. You can feel the rising expectations.”

The main factors driving the optimism of residents, Duggan says, are the basics like street lights coming on, garbage being picked up and buses running on time. But what’s grabbing the attention of those outside the city — and inside, too — are the big strokes like blight removal.

“People are coming from all over the country to see how we do this,” the mayor says. “Then you see the property values are going up. I drive the neighborhoods every day. The number of people doing work on their homes in the city, the number of people cutting grass, you can tell the property values are coming up, meaning people think the future is going to be better than where we are. So that part is powerful.”

It’s been a long time since a Detroit mayor could come to Mackinac and be cheered for the problems that are being solved rather than attacked for the ones that aren’t.

Duggan was the star this week, supplanting in many ways a controversy-engulfed Gov. Rick Snyder, who for the past five years was received here like a rock star.

This time Duggan was all the buzz. His keynote speech brought conference attendees to their feet, and gave them something positive to talk about it.

Duggan was buoyed by a Detroit News/WDIV-TV poll released during the conference in which Michigan residents said Detroit was the only government entity going in the right direction.

“The pace of change is rapid,” he says. “I think it is going very quickly. We’re going the right way. The buses are running on time. The lights are coming back on. But those are things you shouldn’t have to talk about. You shouldn’t be celebrating the lights coming back on.”

Exactly. Nor should you have to worry about children being failed by their schools or shot in their front yards.

Duggan recognizes that those two realities could overwhelm all the progress he’s making.

He didn’t like the compromise legislation on Detroit schools ultimately passed by the House, preferring instead a measure that would give him control of opening schools and enforcing quality measures. He has little confidence that without a strong Detroit Education Commission the bailout will work long-term.

“I believe they are going to blow $600 million and be back in a huge hole in 12 months,” he says. “It’s going to be a terrible thing. The reason I’ve been fighting so hard in Lansing is that the implications are enormous. I did not want to get involved in the school issue. I’ve got a lot of other things we’ve got to fix.

“But the millennials are pouring into the city in strong numbers and we are having families with children move into the city. So what’s the health of the city like long term? If you are trying to look at the city, say three to five years out, if people don’t have confidence in quality schools it hampers everything else we’re doing.”

But now that the legislation is passed, Duggan will focus on getting a quality school board, which will be elected in November.

“If we have an elected school board this November, you’ll see the people in the this city pay a lot of attention and make good decisions,” he says.

Duggan also needs residents to make good decisions about gun violence.

“The shootings of the children is just so heartbreaking,” he says. “It has a pall over the city.”

But he believes even on this stubborn challenge, he has the right plan, citing his and Police Chief James Craig’s efforts with the Cease Fire program which aims to discourage gang activity and encourage young people to settle their disputes without using a gun.

Overall, Duggan is pleased about where he’s taken the city after just 18 months of having actual control, particularly the way residents have responded.

“They are getting actively involved and as they’re getting actively involved they are getting more demanding.”