Detroit growing

Last May I wrote that the city of Detroit should focus on growing, not shrinking. As contradictory as it sounds the city needs to do some of both. But the priority needs to be growth. As I wrote:

Detroit’s problem is not that there is no demand for central city living. The last two decades have seen a rebirth of urban neighborhoods that were written off as dead across the country. They have largely been revitalized by a combination of immigrants and college educated households – mainly young and without children. Detroit’s problem is that it has not participated at any scale with these trends. Detroit needs an agenda to take advantage of the renewed demand for city living.

Two recent articles demonstrate that growth is possible. Both focused on young talent moving into the city. In fact, despite all the naysayers who have written Detroit off, growth is occurring in the city today. The Detroit News article is entitled: Cool factor lures the young, artsy to Detroit. Detroit’s renewal is also garnering national attention. The New York Times story is entitled: Detroit Pushes Back With Young Muscles. I recently did an interview with a video journalist from the Financial Times who, as part of a rust belt story, is interested in Detroit’s Live Midtown initiative.

The Times writes:  The scene might have been run of the mill in Seattle or Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or other urban enclaves that draw the young, the entrepreneurial and the hip. But this was downtown Detroit, far better known in recent years for crime, blight and economic decline. Recent census figures show that Detroit’s overall population shrank by 25 percent in the last 10 years. But another figure tells a different and more intriguing story: During the same time period, downtown Detroit experienced a 59 percent increase in the number of college-educated residents under the age of 35 …

For most of Michigan, and unfortunately many in Detroit, the notion that the city could be compared to Seattle or Brooklyn is not believable. But not to young professionals. The News writes:  “My friends in New York, L.A., Europe all think Detroit is really cool, and, thankfully, so do more and more people here. The energy seems great right now,” said Angela Topacio, an artist and managing partner of Gyro Creative Group downtown.

Obviously at the moment the growth is at a small scale. Hundreds of new residents, stores and businesses, not the tens of thousands the city needs. But it is evidence that growth is possible. And that growth not only matters to the city, but to the region and state as well.

Governor Snyder was both courageous and right when he campaigned across the state with the message that Michigan cannot succeed unless Detroit succeeds. The reality is there is a clear pattern across the country: the most prosperous states are either rich in energy resources or are anchored by an even more prosperous big metro with a vibrant central city.

The revitalization of Detroit that is enabling the growth has been led by foundations, anchor institutions, business leaders and community development organizations. The Hudson-Webber Foundation and Dan Gilbert – both featured in the Times article – have been particularly visionary in their leadership. As well as the energy and dedication of the young professionals who now call Detroit home.

It is time for city, regional and state policy makers to get more active. The region and state have a big stake in Detroit becoming a talent magnet. As we have written before the priority for city leadership is to be far more welcoming to all, development friendly and to provide quality basic services – starting with safety – and amenities. For the region and state the priority is to help with the investments that matter: starting with making Woodward light rail a reality but also finding ways to reverse the cuts in revenue sharing and the ending of historic preservation and brownfield tax credits. At the moment city policies and practices as well as regional and state policies are a headwind hindering Detroit’s growth. That needs to change!

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