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Finley: Flint models Detroit in comeback

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Flint — Visiting Flint last week, I saw something I didn’t expect: Cranes.

They were everywhere downtown, rebuilding historic structures, erecting new lofts and apartments, adding pieces to an already rich cultural community. For a city that’s supposed to be at death’s door, there’s a lot of life in Flint. And a lot of faith in the future.

“There’s a light in the tunnel,” says Mayor Karen Weaver, who came to office in January in the midst of the devastating water crisis. “We can see a better day.”

That’s the same sense I got from the city’s business community, which lost a number of enterprises, particularly restaurants and bars, after the lead contamination of the water supply was made public. Now, new establishments are opening, houses are selling again and at higher prices, and the city has hung out an “Open for Business” sign.

I was struck by the parallels between Flint’s comeback and Detroit’s recovery from bankruptcy. Both cities suffered enormously from abandonment by the automobile industry and corruption at City Hall. Both lost roughly half their peak population — Flint is down to just under 100,000 residents.

Yet in both places, private developers kept investing throughout the dark days, maintaining momentum on critical projects. Like Detroit, the majority of the activity is centered on downtown, where creative young professionals are driving demand for residential, commercial and entertainment space.

Flint also has its own version of Dan Gilbert. Phil Hagerman struck it big-time rich with his Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy, and is investing his fortune in Flint. He brought 1,200 workers into the city, and his Skypoint Ventures development arm is buying and restoring historic buildings downtown.

Flint is following Detroit’s example in looking beyond the auto industry for its economic future. Just 8,000 General Motors workers are left in Flint out of a workforce that once totaled 80,000. Now the city is turning toward the high tech and health care industries to employ its people.

Cheap commercial and industrial space combined with a skilled workforce are attracting the attention of entrepreneurs. And the story of Flint’s crisis has made the city a cause celebre of altruistic investors, foundations and banks.

“Folks want to participate in the rebuilding,” says Gary Hurand, a development consultant.

The obstacles the two cities face are also similar. About 10 percent of Flint’s 50,000 homes are blighted. The city has torn down 2,000, and has funding to demolish another 1,000 or so. But its neighborhoods remain pockmarked with decay. It also continues to battle crime, and like Detroit, struggles with creating a quality public school system.

Ironically, Flint sees water as its best marketing tool. Once Flint is connected to the new Karegnondi Water Authority next year, it hopes to attract food processing and other industries that need clean but untreated water, which the new system is designed to provide.

What I expected in Flint was a hangdog city waiting to be rescued. What I found was a defiant community fiercely determined to beat the odds. A lot like Detroit.

Nolan Finley’s book “A Little Red Hen: A Collection of Columns from Detroit’s Conservative Voice” is available from Amazon, iBooks and Barnes & Noble Nook.