Is Motor City “Running on Empty” Or Are Reports of Detroit’s Demise Greatly Exaggerated?

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On top of its massive urban problems, Detroit made tabloid news too. As mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick brought embarrassment and ridicule upon his office for a sex-and-text scandal involving an aide. He left office in 2008, and was eventually sent to prison for five years for obstruction of justice related to the scandal.

Today, some people contend that the city just might be bouncing back.

There’s a new mayor in town, Dave Bing, a former NBA all-star and a successful steel entrepreneur.  He inherited a budget deficit of at least $275 million and a city government that was ineffectual.  But many believe he has brought dignity and credibility back to city hall.

His job couldn’t be more difficult, however. The mass exodus of talent and companies has left a shell of city and a shortage of educated workers; only 11% of adults have college degrees.

But Bing has a master plan, reportedly: it involves shrinking the city back to greatness. Or, in urban planner’s parlance, “right-sizing it.” The problem is, no one really knows how to do this, or what it would entail, so for now, right-sizing’s critics call it “expensive conversation.”

“There is no plan as yet,” said Boyle. “There is a process which is being pursued at a variety of levels with some connections to the public … which is going to move to the strategic positioning of Detroit.  Will that include right-sizing? If I was a betting man, I would say yes. But to the best of my knowledge, there is no plan that I could touch. Yet.”

Well-conceived plans have the power to resuscitate. Flores Forbes, a former city planner for New York City, recalls the impact of the Frederick Douglass Boulevard she worked on.  “There were 16 acres of vacant land in a major area along the boulevard,” she said. “Nothing happened in 25 years.  But we were able to revive that area in six or seven years through collaboration.  C. Virginia Fields was Manhattan Borough President.  She had capital. She had staff. She developed a coalition that brought in other parts of the city, and she worked with Mayor Guiliani to put together a plan, a process. Today Frederick Douglass Boulevard is like a big restaurant row.  And hotels are coming to Harlem.”

Blight, Forbes said, is beatable with the right plan in place. So what does the so-called rightsizing plan involve? Three things:

First, close public buildings, such as poor performing schools. When a major city’s population shrinks leading to the loss of tax revenue, it perhaps makes sense to bulldoze bad schools and send students to those where they can get a better education.

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