Finley: The D mimics Grand Rapids

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

On the day Cleveland was celebrating the Cavaliers’ NBA championship, team owner Dan Gilbert reflected on a key difference between that city and his hometown.

“The business community here is a lot more cohesive than in Detroit,” Gilbert said.

That’s changing, thanks in part to the push to bring brownfield redevelopment tax credits to urban areas like Detroit. While the measure is bottled up in the lame-duck state House, the collaborative effort to pass it marks a major step forward.

Gilbert, Chris Ilitch, Peter Cummings and other downtown big dogs came together to pitch the brownfields plan, which would allow investors to capture tax revenue from projects built on tainted land.

Gov. Rick Snyder was impressed by the teamwork.

“He said to us a few times, use the example of Grand Rapids,” Gilbert says. “The larger developers do stuff together. It’s the way the major players in that community work.”

And they’ve been doing so for a long time.

Peter Secchia, retired chairman of Universal Forest Products in Grand Rapids, says the spark came in 1976, when there were so many abandoned buildings downtown that the Secret Service was reluctant to allow the city to hold a parade for native son Gerald Ford.

Since then, redevelopment has been a team effort, with most of the community’s big businesses and wealthy families participating in major projects.

“The attitude here is that if you don’t play, you pay,” says Secchia, former ambassador to Italy. “You pay in the form of higher taxes to deal with the problems of a broken city. So we all take a piece.”

That extends to the nonprofit sector as well. Secchia joined Amway co-founder Richard DeVos this spring in donating $15 million to help construct the Michigan State University Grand Rapids Research Center.

Gilbert would like to see that sort of broad collaboration among Detroit’s players as well. The tax plan was a good place to start, he says, because the downtown land crunch is affecting everyone.

“It’s critical,” he says. “Now that everything is being occupied and taken, we can’t grow except up. There’s no space.”

Even very rich developers need financing for the mega-projects that are the next step in Detroit. To get loans, they must bridge the gap between rent revenue and construction costs. That’s what the tax capture would do.

“Development is not sustainable if it’s altruism,” Gilbert says.

Builder John Rakolta, who joined the Detroit team pushing the tax proposal, says the “cohesion was quite strong — from the Detroit business community, from Business Leaders of Michigan. Its member were very engaged. This has been coming together for two years.”

And will stay together to try again in January, if the bill doesn’t revive next week.

Gilbert says he’s working particularly closely with Ilitch, who is often viewed as a rival for downtown development, and believes it will lead to bigger things, a la Grand Rapids.

“There’s a lot of things we’ve been talking about,” he says. “More of that is going on now.”

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