Millionaires wanted: Hantz urges more woodlands efforts

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

John Hantz, the financier and founder of Hantz Woodlands, allowed himself a moment of satisfaction last week.

Neighbors, including a woman wearing flip-flops and a fur coat, gathered to watch a "certificate of completion" ceremony in biting cold. A project that had been bitterly opposed by activists now seems to be largely accepted if not embraced. Even Mayor Mike Duggan was on board.

"It has turned out to be one of the better initiatives," said Charlie Beckham, the city's executive for neighborhoods, standing on a cleared east-side lot flanked by neat rows of 20-foot-tall sugar maples. He acknowledged the mayor had been gradually won over by the effort. "We didn't have anyone else tearing down 54 houses and clearing 140 acres."

In the five years since Hantz, the CEO founder of the Hantz Group, proposed buying vacant city land for urban farming, his effort has been called "a land grab," a proposed "plantation," and even merited a visit from actor-activist Danny Glover in 2012, as opponents tried to shut it down.

Today, though, it's a fait accompli: Cleared land, planted trees and a budding sense of neighborhood on streets that previously resembled a war zone.

Mike Score, the Woodlands president, aptly describes a "space that has become a place."

The impact is obvious and, Hantz suggests, reproducible: "We have 40 square miles of vacant land. We could have 39 more people like me who could buy vacant land, pay taxes and keep the grass mowed."

On his commutes from Detroit to his corporate office in Southfield, he used to wonder when somebody would step in to change the deterioration of the neighborhood. "One day, I realized the somebody was me. ... I wondered: 'Can you do something transformational here that doesn't cost a billion dollars?" asks Hantz, whose Indian Village home lies within the square mile he is transforming.

"If I didn't live in Detroit, they could have said, "Go back to the suburbs where you came from,' " he said last week, during an hour-long interview in his historic home. But as a Detroit resident who has bought and renovated several Indian Village houses, and who owns commercial property in the city, Hantz's stake in Detroit was real, even if he — a politically unconnected capitalist who grew up in north Oakland County — didn't fit "into the cool group," as he puts it.

As a longtime resident, he understood the original reluctance of east-side residents to embrace the project. "People are used to being oversold. People come in and promise extraordinary things and they wind up with almost nothing. All I promised was to mow the grass, plant trees and pay taxes." Conspiracy theories abounded.

But Hantz persisted, and as the city headed into bankruptcy he signed a deal to buy vacant lots in a one-square mile area. Ultimately, he planted 15,000 saplings, mowed 2,000 lots regularly, removed 54 abandoned buildings, and added four stands of mature trees to demonstrate what the area would look like in another 10 years.

The firm helped neighbors, too — enabling one resident win back her house from foreclosure, and mowing 200 lots that Hantz doesn't own, to enhance the area and goodwill. Mike Score, the Hantz executive in overalls, was a constant presence on the streets whose physical labor and approachable manner belied ulterior motives. Those who witnessed his long hours clearing brush and debris throughout a historically brutal winter couldn't doubt his commitment.

Hantz calls Score "the game-changer."

Over the summer, the appearance of thousands of small trees where trash, rubble and urban chaos once reigned drew visitors. Residents are walking the streets with less fear and more confidence. Hantz sees a sense of hope returning.

"The point isn't to keep people from moving away," he says. "It's to have people here who want to stay. It's the commitment to stay that will keep lawns mowed and encourage residents to fix up their own homes. We're offering a value proposition. Stick around and probably something good will happen. At the very least, it has to be better than it was."

The "Hantz Woodlands" signs, in green and white, are a neighborhood fixture, recognizable symbols of what its founder calls "a sustainable beautification project." Once-wary Detroit officials, now faced with a tight budget and extraordinary costs, are openly suggesting Hantz has created a model that could be repeated.

"We need partners like this to fix Detroit neighborhood by neighborhood," said Beckham last week, just before a Hantz deconstruction crew showily razed one more burned-out house.

To John Hantz, who invested in one of the city's most ravaged neighborhoods over protest, acres of maples and oak trees tell the story. So does the absence of any visible opposition to Hantz Woodlands. "Where is Danny Glover now?" he asks.