About a decade ago, a popular t-shirt sold at Detroit Metro Airport and other local souvenir shops read, “I’m so tough, I vacation in Detroit!”

And that about sums up the state of the City of Detroit for many of the past 40 years.

Throughout that long period, mayoral administrations and civic leaders have mounted countless initiatives designed to help Detroit turn the corner, so to speak, much like Cleveland and Baltimore, after decades of decline.

Prosperity for Detroit, however, always seems to dangle like a carrot at the end of a telescopic stick: seemingly within its reach but never quite within its grasp.

Economic hopes perhaps were highest in the mid-to-late 1990s after reformer Dennis Archer succeeded Mayor Coleman Young, who had held the office since 1973.

Archer inherited a cultural legacy of Black versus White, Labor versus Management, and City versus Suburb – antagonisms that were reflected in excessive amounts of road rage, nastiness at grocery checkout counters, and often in more violent incidents.

As the aforementioned t-shirt implied, Detroit was one mean-spirited town.

The anger seemed to subside, though, when Archer began to tear down the ossified walls that separated people and the politicians who lead them. He reached out to suburban governments in myriad ways to reach fiscal and regional development compromises that previously would have been considered impossible.

Archer also extended the hand of friendship to big businesses, and people of good will in leadership positions at major companies gladly accepted Archer’s hand and shook it.

The string of initiatives that resulted was impressive. To list but a few:

  • General Motors moved its global headquarters and 6,000 employees into the 5.5 million square-foot Renaissance Center, a huge step toward realizing the vision of a revitalized Detroit riverfront.
  • Comerica Bank sponsored the construction of a new, downtown home for the Detroit Tigers baseball team, a ballpark that bears the bank’s name.
  • Compuware, one of the world’s leading software companies, moved its headquarters from suburban Farmington Hills into the “Campus Martius” neighborhood, bringing more than 4,000 employees to downtown Detroit.
  • Northwest Airlines affirmed a commitment to keep Detroit as its hub, and built a massive new terminal at Detroit Metro Airport.
  • Adjacent to the baseball field, Ford Motor Company subsidized a new stadium for the Detroit Lions football team, which previously had played its NFL games in suburban Pontiac. Now the Lions play downtown in Ford Field.
  • Legalized gambling came to downtown Detroit with the openings of the Greektown, Motor City, and MGM Grand casinos.

These boons were supplemented by major initiatives in economic development, job creation, mass transit, and travel & tourism – many of them driven by leading business and civic organizations, including Detroit Renaissance, the Greater Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, and the Metropolitan Detroit Convention & Visitors Bureau.

These programs have been unfolding for the better part of a decade, and it is fair now to ask what their impact has been. How is Detroit doing?

Judging from current Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s “State of the City” speech on March 13th, the jury is still out, but one might reasonably conclude that the carrot of prosperity is perhaps inching closer to the people’s grasp.

There was good news and bad news in Kilpatrick’s speech but, first, some context about the Mayor – a 300-pound former offensive lineman at Florida A&M University, and the son of Congresswoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick. In 2001, after Archer returned to private law practice, Kilpatrick defeated former police detective and city council president Gil Hill to become, at age of 31, the youngest mayor in the history of Detroit.

The early returns were not auspicious. The Detroit Free Press reported that Kilpatrick charged over $210,000 on his city-issued credit card for personal travel, meals, and entertainment. He also caused controversy with an advertisement comparing media criticism of him to a mob lynching. Perhaps his low point came in 2005 when Time magazine named him one of the three worst big-city mayors in America.

Kilpatrick shocked many observers though, when, despite a scandal-riddled first term, he won re-election in late 2005 over Archer’s former deputy mayor, Freeman Hendrix, and, by late 2006, momentum began to swing strongly in Kilpatrick’s favor.

He took aim at a $300 million budget deficit and made tough choices to get the city’s finances in order. He closed police stations and fire stations. He reduced the city’s workforce by 25 percent and cut contract spending by the same percentage. These and other measures slashed the deficit by more than two thirds, and Kilpatrick promises to eradicate the remainder this year.

In December, the Mayor unveiled the NEXT Detroit initiative, a five-year strategy to transform blighted neighborhoods into vibrant areas by focusing on cleanliness, safety, beautification, and growth and development. Six neighborhoods were identified and designated for action in one of three categories – Redevelop, Revitalize, or Reinforce -each according to its needs. Critical issues include decreasing insurance premiums, preventing crime, improving schools, and increasing commercial retailing.

Work finally is under way on the long-delayed $180 million renovation of the Book-Cadillac Hotel, an historic downtown landmark and pet project of Kilpatrick’s. Some of the penthouse units recently sold in the $1 million range, commonplace perhaps for New York or Chicago but a staggering figure for Detroit.

The Mayor maintains that the city’s RiverWalk east of the Renaissance Center is scheduled for completion this Spring, as is an ‘Asian Village” complex of restaurants and shops that will supplement Greektown as an ethnic dining and cultural center.

A recent Detroit News editorial said Kilpatrick “is moving the city in the right direction in three key areas: finances, crime and education. One of the most noteworthy things about the mayor’s financial plan is that it takes the city in exactly the opposite direction from Governor Jennifer Granholm’s proposed tax and fee hikes.”The day after his “State of the City” speech, a Detroit Free Press editorial read Given the sorry condition of the state economy, the mayor and the city have much to be proud of.And one day later, Rochelle Riley, Free Press journalist, observed, “That was humility and leadership and maturity. I’m not suggesting that the Mayor woke up one day last week and became a new man. I am suggesting that the Mayor has matured into someone who can rebuild a city, can create a lasting legacy, and can make this city a place young people will choose to raise their families.”
That would be no mean feat. His NEXT initiative notwithstanding, the issue of housing looms largely for Kilpatrick and Detroit, as it does for all of southeastern Michigan where the auto industry is suffering one of the worst declines in decades.

According to the housing and real estate tracking service RealtyTrac, unemployment in Detroit is near 14 percent, one third of Detroiters live in poverty, and Detroit leads the nation in new foreclosure filings.

U.S. Census figures released last October showed home prices in Detroit were the least expensive among America’s 15 largest cities, with a median value of $88,300.

Yet Kilpatrick can point to the fact that, at least to some degree, Detroit did manage to resist the state’s downward trend last year in existing home sales, which actually were up 7.6 percent in 2006, according to the Michigan Association of Realtors.

The city of Detroit also led the seven-county metro region in new residential construction permits in 2006, according to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). Detroit issued 739 permits for new single-family houses, townhouses and multifamily units in 2006, the most of any community in the region, where overall construction activity was down sharply, SECOG reported.

When all of the urban development agencies have weighed in, and all of their statistics have been analyzed; when every last ounce of blame and every glowing accolade has been accorded the politicians, what can one predict about Detroit? What is the forecast?

Still hazy after all these years

Robert McEwen