Trip to Detroit brings lessons for Metro
The last few years, Metro councilors and employees have gone to some well-respected places as part of regional delegations to learn about best practices for governments and businesses.
Recent destinations have included Copenhagen and Minneapolis. The regional public and private sector delegation will go to Barcelona in 2011.
This year’s Best Practices trip? Detroit.
Yes, that Detroit.
No, it wasn’t a Worst Practices trip. But Metro policy advisor Andy Shaw, part of the delegation, said that as an unavoidable part of the journey.
“We are trying to learn what other cities have done, and bring back and import some of the lessons from those places,” Shaw said. “We want to learn things they’ve done wrong, to avoid as well.”
Members of the delegation briefed Metro employees on Dec. 15 about the journey.
Detroit and the Portland region's Community Investment Initiative
The Greenlight Greater Portland trip to Detroit earlier this year highlighted the kind of dramatic civic change that can occur with significant support from the private sector and foundations.
That's exactly what Metro is talking about with the Community Investment Initiative, an independent group in its formative stages, tasked with developing a regional vision for investments. The initiative's Leadership Council, which will take the lead in developing that vision, is about half formed; its membership is expected to be announced in January.
When the delegation debriefed after the Detroit trip, one of the three main topics was the Community Investment Initiative.
But Andy Shaw, Metro's chief liaison to the initiative, cautioned that the predominant model of the Midwest might not be effective in the Portland region for decades to come.
"You look at a place like Pittsburgh, where the Carnegie money created huge amounts of value culturally and historically in the community," he said. "Those are places based on people making bazillions of dollars off of steel and the railroads and whatever else – the auto industry in Detroit.
"There is a philanthropic spirit here, but it hasn't been around the same kinds of things that folks have done in Detroit," Shaw said.
Part of that is related to the massive endowments foundations like Kresge and Ford have to throw around. And part of that is based on the level of needs.
While infrastructure challenges await – Metro Chief Operating Officer Michael Jordan said the region is facing a $27 to $41 billion bill for infrastructure improvements in the coming decades – Shaw said a lot of the philanthropy in the Portland region has been focused on higher level issues.
"They're at the point of, 'How do we stem the flow of people and build back up basic services like police and schools and fire,'" Shaw said. "I think given that we're at such different levels… looking at the foundations we do have here to fund higher levels of analysis in the health realm, in the realm of school outcomes, in the realm of creating healthy communities."
Also on the delegation was Detroit native Jim Desmond, Metro’s sustainability director.
“They lost a ton of population. There were vacant streets everywhere,” he said. “But they’ve got 300,000 more people than we do.”
“I don’t know where they are. We didn’t see them,” quipped Metro Council President Carlotta Collette, drawing laughter from the lunchtime audience of about 30 Metro employees.
The empty streets were a theme of the conversation, and exemplified the change going on in inner Detroit. Beyond 8 Mile Road was a suburbia that was 80 percent white and hasn’t experienced the same population plummet that Detroit proper has.
“The surrounding communities we saw, they’re what we call complete communities,” said Councilor Kathryn Harrington. “They’re walkable. People’s everyday needs are being met in ways that don’t relate to the central city.”
Flight to the suburbs, a shrinking taxbase and an inability to provide basic urban services – even services as simple like firefighting – have left blocks of the city proper with just a few occupied homes. The delegation pointed out that Detroit, population 800,000, lacks a full-service grocery store.
The collapse of the auto industry is the most-discussed cause for the downfall. But the delegation found more nuanced reasons for the collapse.
“There was an arrogance, that, ‘We can never fail, the industry is never going away,’” Shaw said. “They had great highways, which made it easy for folks to flee out to the suburbs basically. It’s very hard now to overcome how easy it is to get into downtown. There’s no congestion today.”
Collette said the emptiness struck her while she was in the Renaissance Center, General Motors’ towering office complex downtown, on the Detroit River.
“I looked down on what was at least a 12 lane thoroughfare at rush hour on a workday, and as far as I could see, I couldn’t count more than 20 cars. Literally, 20 cars,” she said.
“It felt like a zombie movie,” Shaw added.
Still, the city had signs of progress, opportunity and creative thinking. Slowly, well-established nonprofits with endowments in the billions have learned that one big project is not going to save Detroit; smaller investments in community projects can bring about change.
“Everywhere we went, Ford put $10 million into this, Kresge put $20 million into that,” Shaw said.
A creative arts college that Collette said was once used to train designers for the auto industry now trains designers who dream up advertising campaigns. The area around Wayne State University, north of downtown, is becoming a creative core.
“This facility Carlotta was highlighting is in an area where a lot of interesting things are going on,” Harrington said. “Wayne State University, Henry Ford Hospital is there, Detroit Medical Center. They’re really working on a lot of partnerships, so that this project isn’t just a standalone.”
Elsewhere in the city, the creative class is being lured by homes that look like they belong in Portland’s Irvington or Laurelhurst neighborhoods but cost just $20,000, the group said.
And in a twist that would make the Washington County Farm Bureau smile, some residential neighborhoods, emptied of residents, are being converted to agricultural areas.
Putting together large lot agricultural land is one of the challenges facing the new Detroit.
“In an area where there are four houses left, those four houses are the people that have held that neighborhood together,” Desmond said. “It’s hard to tell them, ‘We’re going to tear your house down and move you somewhere else.’”
Critical to the urban renaissance have been contributions from individuals. Corporate and individual donors, including Detroit Red Wings and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch and motorsports legend Roger Penske, are matching the public contribution on a light rail line connecting that creative district to downtown. A story on MLive.com said the project’s backers cited Portland’s streetcar as a reason to support the project, because of the amount of private investment it spurred.
“They’re looking at it as a philanthropic light rail project,” Shaw said.
That corporate culture of giving isn’t as well-developed in Portland, the group said.
“One of the lessons for us is, how do we continue to get there, so we have that high level of partnership?” Harrington said. “Not just in outreach, but how do we make sure we’re developing these tools together so we can go through that decisionmaking process together for a greater Portland metropolitan area?”
Desmond said that fostering development in the private sector was crucial for the success of Detroit, and other cities toured in the past.
“A lot of the economic growth in the 70s and 80s, some of those very small startups are large companies today,” he said. “They have foundations investing in civic things. It’s an economic strategy that has played up very well for a city like Minneapolis. It’s something we need to think about.”
Metro news reporter Nick Christensen can be reached at 503-813-7583 or email@example.com. Follow Metro on Twitter @oregonmetro.