Former Detroit Mayor Young wouldn’t like Props A and B

Ken Coleman

Coleman A. Young, if alive today, would be against both Proposals A and B, the Detroit community benefits agreements on the November ballot.

Both proposals would require pacts between neighborhood stakeholders and developers when tax breaks are sought. Proposal A, for example, applies to projects of $15 million or more with public subsidies valued at least $300,000. Proposal B applies to projects of $75 million or more with public subsidies of at least $1 million. The agreements would be legally binding.

Young, the former Detroit mayor, enjoyed his reign in a form of government where he had enormous power and development agreements were negotiated by his administration unilaterally. Conversely, this is quite different than the Chicago alderman-mayor form of government where legislative elected officials can, too, play a leadership role in creating projects in their respective geographic area.

Second, Young certainly didn’t like the City Council meddling in the negotiation process, especially when big-ticket projects like the Chrysler Jefferson plant on the lower east side or Pepsi Bottling Plant near Eastern Market were on the line. Giving a thumb’s up or down when it comes to a tax abatement, yes. But not a seat at the table and helping to crafting the deal. Proposal B’s inspiration comes, in part, from City Council member Scott Benson, who is an urban planner by profession.

Finally, Young — especially after his epic experience in 1980 and 1981 with the General Motors Central Industrial Park development deal commonly known as “Poletown Plant” — would argue that he and his administration have at their finger tips, the information, the analysis, the relationship with the developer — and the community. In other words: We got this.

Flashback to 1980: General Motors declared that it was looking at several sites across the country to build a state-of-the-art assembly plant to effectively replace its Clark Street plant in Detroit. Its chairman, Thomas Murphy, gave Young exactly one year to offer a proposal. In somewhat hasty fashion, Young and his development team, led by Emmett Moten, through eminent domain and a new legislative tool called “quick take” seized private property and argued in the name of public benefit. A neighborhood organization took Young to court to block the effort. Ultimately, however, the state Supreme Court sided with Young and a groundbreaking was held on May 1, 1981.

My sense is that Young wouldn’t want to go through that type of effort again. After all, upon taking office in 1974, he declared that he knew the city and understood its people. In fact, an agreement was struck between General Motors, the Inner-City Business Improvement Forum and the city of Detroit to meet twice each month to discuss and review minority business enterprise participation in the “Poletown” project.

My view is if Young were faced with Proposal A and B on the Nov. 8 ballot, he’d confidently shrug and with his indelible chuckle say something like this: “If you’re not convinced which way to go, vote no.”

Ken Coleman is a Detroit author and historian.