Bankole: Rod Miller leaves DEGC in doubt

Bankole Thompson

Rodrick Miller, 39, is moving on after less than three years in Detroit as CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., where he directed the city’s main anchor for business development.

Since his arrival in September 2014, he registered a number of significant developments for the city including the Paradise Valley initiative, the Flex-N-Gate project and Motor City Match among other initiatives, all of which have come to represent positives for the administration of Mayor Mike Duggan.

But Miller’s sudden departure has raised fears about the autonomy of DEGC under its 50-member board of directors.

Will it remain an independent agency, or will it forfeit its 501(c)(3) status and become a city department under the purview of Duggan and take its orders from the mayor’s economic czar Tom Lewand?

Will it make decisions on the basis of each economic development proposal, or simply on political expediency?

DEGC, with its $7.1 million annual budget, has a long tradition for being independent. The agency does not mix politics with its decisions.

Past administrations have tried to wrest influence or control over the direction of the DEGC without much success because its officials view themselves as economic experts, not politicians.

But according to several individuals familiar with the internal issues of DEGC, Miller’s abrupt resignation was the product of a power struggle between him and some power centers in the mayor’s office over direction of the agency. Some sources said there were even internal fights over hiring decisions that Miller believed should have come from within the organization instead of being forced down his throat from outside.

Bob Rossbach, a senior communications consultant for the DEGC, said there is no plan to make DEGC a department in city government.

“No plans, short or long term, to fold DEGC into a city department,” Rossbach said.

Rossbach also said DEGC does not report to anyone in Duggan’s office.

“DEGC staff report directly to the executive committee of DEGC’s own board of directors, not directly to anyone in mayor’s office,” Rossbach said. “In order to function effectively, DEGC has to have a very close working relationship with the mayor’s office, but Tom Lewand is one of 19 members of the DEGC executive committee and one of about 50 board members.”

Rossbach said that for the time being, Glen Long, the CFO of the agency, will serve as interim CEO until a permanent replacement is found for the $280,000 post.

Rod Gillum, a former top executive at General Motors who served as chairman of the DEGC board when Miller was hired, said the city was lucky to have him.

“Rod wasn’t looking for a change when the search firm contacted him. His body of work included impressive economic development accomplishments in Arizona and Louisiana,” he said. “Before he arrived he compiled a list of who he needed to meet with and didn’t wait for them to knock on his door — he reached out to them.”

Gillum also said: “While his prominent achievements, such as Flex-N-Gate and Paradise Valley, deservingly get the headlines, his commitment to community-based projects such as Motor City Match, the renovation of grocery stores in the neighborhoods and the Livernois initiatives are among Rod’s other major sustainable contributions to Detroit and Detroiters.”

Anika Goss-Foster, executive director of Detroit Future City, said Miller pushed for African-American businesses to be part of the city’s revival.

“In Detroit, the fact remains only 15 percent of small business retailers are African-American despite all of the grant programs and support initiatives. Rod was one of the few executive leaders who attempted to put resources and support toward African-American business leaders as a network to raise capital and create equity for African-American businesses,” Foster said.

“I believe Detroit’s expectations will be extremely high now that we know what is possible when we have someone of this level of intellectual capital, leadership and compassion. This is our loss.”

Let’s face it. Miller’s exit is a loss for the city. He spoke openly and strongly about the need for economic inclusion. He did not shy away from the topic or tiptoe around it.

I met him several months after he took his assignment. He reached out for lunch and I agreed to meet him. I was curious to hear from this young businessman Duggan had picked to head the DEGC.

His appointment was reassuring and provided some stability after the humiliating exit of George Jackson, the then-DEGC leader, who was outspoken and known for his hardcore analyses on issues affecting the city’s economic growth.

Miller’s background and depth of knowledge on the intricacies of economic development were impressive. Harvard trained, hefounded the New Orleans Business Alliance in Louisiana, the DEGC’s equivalent, and had held similar positions in other cities, including vice president of international economic development at the Greater Phoenix Economic Council.

He believed in Detroit. He was an ally of the mayor’s economic vision. He did not buy into the narrative that Detroit is a dead city, which is why he launched a national sales program to sell the city as a business destination. He will be remembered as someone who came and made his mark despite his short term.

Twitter: @bankieT

The writer hosts “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Super Station 910AM. This column appears Mondays and Thursdays.