Matthew Roling: How Could Cities Better Connect All Their Residents to Economic Opportunity?
I have spent my entire post-college professional career living and working in Detroit, Michigan.
It’s a city that truly reached rock bottom during the great recession of 2009, filed for bankruptcy in 2013, and has an NFL team which has won one playoff game in the last 40 years. With its large swaths of vacant land surrounded by 21% of the world’s supply of fresh water, millions of highly skilled workers, and billions of dollars in economic activity, we’re facing the future with a renewed sense of optimism and positive energy that has been lacking. Sadly, Detroit’s track record is bleak; our ability to lag the nation in negative economic and quality of life indicators is so bad it would make Kim Jong-un blush.
And yet, here I am. And here we are.
- Me: Wisconsin born and bred, finance geek, turned corporate turnaround specialist, turned business development guy for a conglomerate of real estate, gaming, and start-up enterprises constituting over 100 different companies – many of which were intentionally based in Detroit for the sole reason that the founder is driven to revitalize the urban core of the city.
- Detroit: After 40+ years of episodic fits and starts, a city looking forward with new leadership, a fresh balance sheet, the support of engaged public-private partnerships, the patronage of presidents, and a revived brand cache that captures the esprit de corps of a city where anything is possible and housing can be had for $500 for those with the courage and tenacity to rebuild from the studs.
So, what’s next? The City’s unemployment rate is still a staggering 21%, half of Detroiters can’t read, and the City’s fragile recovery is largely seen by those in more impoverished neighborhoods as benefiting wealthy suburban people (or something hipsters will ride to build a downtown playground) – not necessarily beneficial to the at-risk among us. As we move forward into a brave new world, what decisions can we make as a community to better connect all of Detroit’s residents with economic opportunity?
Below I’ve laid out a few suggestions for a more economically inclusive Detroit. None of these ideas would cost a billion dollars, most only require the stroke of a pen, albeit a pen held firmly by entrenched interests. All focus primarily on inclusion, pragmatism and growth – hallmarks of sustainable economic policy.
Shift the Mission of Our Economic Development Corporations
- Think grassroots in addition to top-down: EDCs typically focus on deploying incentives to lure large developments, projects, or retailers to a city or region (see our shiny new Whole Foods).
- IF EDCs had a bottom-up focus, aspiring entrepreneurs from all walks of life might enjoy a friendlier business climate, more access to capital, and lower barriers to business creation.
- Added benefit: Small businesses owners are a powerful force for keeping neighborhoods clean, safe, well lit and preventing crime and mayhem.
Penalize Junk Food; Reward Nutritious Food
- Urban neighborhood = “food desert.”
- PENALIZE bad food: Combine excise taxes with food stamp and school lunch reform to increase affordable access to nutritious food, reducing reliance on, and consumption of, foods that are making all of us slow, dumb, and fat.
- REWARD nutritious food: Enhance and expand urban and community gardening, education programs, and access to nutritious foods.
- Added benefit: Long-term state Medicaid deficits magically become surpluses.
Municipalities Should Focus on Innovating Transit Solutions
In the last five years, Detroit’s private sector has brought us the following advances:
- Detroit’s first real shot at forming a regional transit authority and rolling out light rail
- Car sharing
- Bike sharing
- A venture capital firm focused entirely on mobility advancements
- In the last thirty years, the city’s major transit coup was constructing a 2.9 mile long “Detroit People Mover,” which may or may not have been the inspiration for the infamous Simpsons episode where a small town is swindled into building a low quality monorail that is ill suited to address the town’s needs.
- Municipal governments need to take a cue from the private sector and begin identifying and implementing new technologies and mobility advancements that will make it easier for low-income residents get to and from the workplace.
- Added benefit: Simpson’s references to Detroit can focus on Homer’s failed attempt to design an automobile.
The policy and strategy changes above, if done correctly at this critical juncture in the City’s rebirth, could help position Detroit as a community that will be more inclusive, durable and sustainable than many of its (currently) more prosperous North American peer cities.