Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan sent a clear message: Flint can rebuild.
“When people work together, it’s amazing the problems they can solve,” Duggan said as the keynote speaker at the Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce’s sold out annual meeting on April April 11, 2019. Unity and partnership were central messages of the event, which showcased a collaborative planning process called Forward Together launched earlier this year by the chamber.
One key challenge faced by Detroit and Flint is population loss. “You know what happened,” Duggan said referring to the two cities’ shared automotive past.
“Other cities went vertical when people poured in. Places like Chicago and New York, they went up in the air. Detroit was unique. We spread out, because an autoworker could make enough money to have a house with a backyard,” he said. The long steep decline in urban population left the city with a huge housing stock of some 40,000 abandoned homes — roughly the same number of single family homes in the city of Flint.
“Just imagine if you woke up tomorrow and every single house in the entire city of Flint was empty?” he said. Thousands of houses a year that are being demolished in Detroit, while at the same time the housing is being replenished in revamped downtown areas in both Detroit and Flint.
For Detroit, that was part of a concerted effort to appeal to millennials who want to live in walkable, dense urban areas, Duggan said.
Duggan said his first step was to look at basic infrastructure. “We had to restore confidence,” he said. “Half of the street lights in the city of Detroit were out — you want to talk about a symbol of how the government couldn’t function.” In three years, the city went on to replace 65,000 streetlights. Then, the city focused on improving emergency response times from an average of 28 minutes in 2014 to 13:28 minutes as of March, edging closer to the national standard of 12 minutes. “I’m a metrics guy. It’s boring stuff, but I’m obsessed with it,” Duggan said.
With 17,000 homes demolished in the last five years, Duggan said his focus now is on building population. “Knocking down a house by itself doesn’t build population, but here is what we found: If you take down the two burned houses on the block, there is a lot of solid brick houses that are vacant. … When you clean up the rest of the block, people can see the potential, and it’s a strategy that can work in Flint.”
Duggan also began filing nuisance lawsuits against owners of abandoned homes — giving them six months to fix up and reoccupy a home or turn over ownership of the home to the city. Six thousand homes in the city have been renovated and sold online through, buildingdetroit.org.
“You want to make the space attractive for young talent and that’s what we did, and I’m seeing the same strategy being employed in Flint,” he said.
Mayor Karen Weaver also pointed to Duggan’s view on high unemployment as a competitive advantage for Detroit. “Sometimes you think the things you have are working against you but there really assets,” she said. “When you talk about that there are a lot of people here that are ready to work, that’s the same thing that they have there in Detroit that Mayor Duggan talked about,” Weaver said. “Where are you going to find 500 some people ready to work? You are going to find them in Flint.”
Chamber CEO Tim Herman noted that the annual meeting marks the end of the first year of the chamber’s three-year strategic plan.
In 2018, Genesee County saw $194 million in total investment, including 13 projects and 263 jobs created. Also, more than 950 students were served through YouthQuest and 500 teens graduated from the skill training program TeenQuest.
Tourism revenue also saw a dramatic increase with more than $134 million in revenue from overnight hotel rentals and lodging revenue up 11 percent.
Herman said the two primary challenges facing the region are population decline and talent shortages. “Oftentimes we skirt around some of these issues if they feel too daunting, but we can’t afford to do that. We have to address these things head on and the Forward Together countywide visioning process is going to help with this.”
“We have the city, county, schools and business all working together,” he said. “A lot of good information from Detroit, and while they are 50 percent bigger, we are coming up, right on their tails.”