I spent much of last week in Detroit visiting places like the Woodward Corridor and meeting with local leaders as part of both the Living Cities Board of Directors semi-annual meeting and the separate Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Board of Trustees Meeting. In the conversations and discussions that surfaced, I was struck to find these foundation heads and financial institution leaders were all surprisingly yet undeniably hopeful about the future of Detroit. The momentum behind this budding optimism was recently featured in an excellent article in The Economist, “ The parable of Detroit: So cheap, there’s hope.” As the author points out there has been a constant drumbeat of bad news from America’s motor city, including a 25% loss of population in the last decade. However with a strong set of partnerships in place and some inherent key strengths, Detroit is providing many with a reason to be just a little hopeful these days.
“Detroit is now incredibly cheap. And that has drawn some admittedly rather pioneering types back into town.” With the abundance of cheap land and low rent, The Economist argues, the city has been able to lure back social entrepreneurs like Dan Gilbert, Chairman and Founder of Quicken Loans, the largest online mortgage lender. According to the article, TechTown – an urban incubator designed to stimulate job growth and small business creation in the Detroit region – has 250 businesses on its books, and a waiting list of 40 would-be start-ups.
While cheap land and the planned transit line along the busy Woodward Corridor have fueled new interest and investment, the strength and engagement of the city’s anchor institutions should not be overlooked either. Driving through the city’s Midtown you see the blight and abandoned buildings that are often the focus of news reports and studies, but you also find something else – hospitals, universities, museums and new development and stores. These anchor institutions collectively hold at least $1 billion in assets and many like the Detroit Medical Center, Henry Ford Health System, and Wayne State Universityare joining efforts to support local hiring and procurement policies including an employee-assisted housing program called “ Live Midtown” which was so successful that it used its first round of funds in just 6 months. The popularity of this program has also inspired similar initiatives among five downtown Detroit employers, and a group of anchor institutions in Cleveland. A month ago our organization celebrated its twentieth anniversary and one of the key insights that surfaced was the need for cities to work with what they’ve got- and Detroit has a lot.
In a recent interview with Next American City, Rip Rapson, President and CEO of the Kresge Foundation commented that in the future people will likely view this current period in Detroit as, “A remarkable moment of inflection in which multiple sectors agreed to collaborate for a common outcome.” With very early signs of progress we are beginning to see the rewards of a significantly concentrated and aligned multi-sector effort. The level of engagement and leadership of the public, private, nonprofit and especially philanthropic sectors around a common agenda has been extraordinary. Groups like the Skillman Foundation and Kresge Foundation have played key roles in moving citywide reform efforts and others like the Knight Foundation, Ford Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation have pooled their money to launch the New Economy Initiative which is helping to accelerate the transition of metro Detroit to an innovation-based economy.
The strength of the partnerships and the incredible work we see coming out of these collaborations is encouraging and a further reminder of what we already knew – that the most effective innovation tends to sit at the local level, not state or federal. Conversations in Detroit with Michigan Governor Snyder and former New Jersey Governor Thomas H. Kean (current chair of the RWJF board), both Republicans, validated that. Both stressed the importance of the Governor to take an active role in helping cities succeed and insuring that their innovations stick. Governor Kean’s reaction to his tour of Detroit sums it up pretty well, “This city sure has a lot more things to build its future on than people think.”