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Detroit Offers Lessons, and Inspiration, to LINK Delegation

Posted on: May 15, 2017

More than 120 metro Atlanta leaders traveled to the Detroit region in early May for the 2017 LINK trip, organized by the Atlanta Regional Commission, to learn about Detroit’s renaissance and search for lessons that could help address key challenges back home.

On one hand, Detroit’s well-known struggles provide a cautionary tale about what might happen when a region’s urban core sharply declines.

But Detroit’s remarkable rise from the ashes of bankruptcy offered plenty of inspiration for metro Atlanta. The region’s determined entrepreneurial spirit and penchant for innovation generated a buzz among LINK participants.

LINK participants were inspired by the honesty and transparency of the “Detroiters” they met. Key takeaways included open discussions about race and equity, economic diversification, confronting difficult issues before they become overwhelming, and taking steps to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen in metro Atlanta. But perhaps the most surprising takeaway was the optimism felt by all.

“There was a very positive energy, and it was inspiring to see all these people who cared so much about their city,” said LINK participant Amol Naik, head of external affairs for Google in the Southeast. “It was also interesting to see how much race played a factor and how open they were about it.”

The LINK group will get back together in June to discuss the key takeaways from the trip and decide any next steps that might be needed.

Reviving Vacated Neighborhoods

Detroit’s once-proud Downtown and Midtown neighborhoods struggled for generations as the city’s population plunged from a high of 1.8 million in the 1950s to less than 700,000 today.

Vacant lots and boarded-up buildings spread along Woodward Avenue, the city’s version of Peachtree Street, a stark reminder of how far Detroit had fallen.

But things started to change about a decade ago. Dozens of dilapidated buildings have been renovated and converted into hip housing developments, trendy shops, restaurants, cafes and office space for ambitious start-up companies. A new hockey and basketball arena is rising as well.

LINK participants got a first-hand look at the transformation, visiting a design school, the headquarters of fast-growing watchmaker Shinola and the majestic Detroit Institute of Arts.

Renewed interest in urban living among students, young professionals and empty nesters helped spark the resurgence, said Sue Mosey, executive director of Midtown Detroit Inc.

“We are benefitting from national trends, as larger populations are valuing and want to return to urban city neighborhoods,” she said. “We also have pretty good bones left that are attractive to people.”

Also giving a boost: a newfound ability of public, private and nonprofit groups to work together to foster change, said David Blaszkiewicz, president & CEO of Invest Detroit.

“In our history, we were very territorial,” he said. “We’d draw boxes around things – this is my space; this is your space. There wasn’t the collaborative spirit there is today.”

However, many Detroit leaders stressed that the turnaround is far from complete. The vast neighborhoods east and west of the Downtown-Midtown spine remain pocked with dilapidated houses and thousands of vacant lots where homes once stood.

“Those who supported Detroit in its downturn must share in its revival,” said Rodrick Green, a trustee of Superior Township.

Still Wrestling with Race and Equity Issues

The Detroit region remains highly segregated, with a city that is predominantly black ringed by mostly white suburbs.

Several LINK panel discussions featured frank explorations of the role race played in shaping the Detroit region and how racial issues continue to complicate the task of rebuilding from bankruptcy.

“You can’t talk about regional issues if you don’t talk about race,” said Angela Reyes, executive director of the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, during a panel about how Detroit gets things done. “The most segregated metro area in the country is not Atlanta. It’s not down South. It’s here.” She added: “Fear and hate are leading the way now.”

Green, the Superior Township trustee, suggested racial animosity may have helped defeat a regional transit initiative.

“We have to begin to trust each other. It’s just us. It’s not us versus them,” said Green. “This infighting has to stop. Let’s work together on issues that affect us all.”

Race also took center stage during a panel discussion about Detroit’s education landscape and what should be done to improve the long-struggling Detroit city school district. Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation, traced the problem to a policy environment “rooted in racism and prejudice.”

“I’m a big advocate of academic achievement, but I also understand that when we talk of the achievement gap, we don’t have that – we have racism manifested,” she told the LINK delegation. “You have to have the corporate sector, parents and educators honestly addressing this, and re-do strategies, to create change.”

LINK Forward

For the first time this year, a small group of veteran LINK participants joined a new program called LINK Forward, which also traveled to Detroit and took a deeper dive into the region’s issues.

The 16 LINK Forward delegates toured several blighted neighborhoods and met with leaders of New Detroit, a nonprofit aimed at bringing the regional community together.

John Rakolta, New Detroit’s board chairman and the son of Romanian immigrants, has hosted more than 80 dinner parties in his home to discuss the issues of race and equity in Greater Detroit. Each dinner features a diverse group of 10 people.

“Sometimes the discussions get a little heated and uncomfortable, and that’s good,” he told LINK Forward participants. “But when everyone leaves, they look at each other different and maybe they feel a little better about things. They understand that there are places where we can talk about these things.”

Transportation at the Heart of Revival

As Greater Detroit reinvents itself, the auto industry that built the region is trying to do the same.

Ford is a national leader in the field of transportation technology and is bringing that knowledge to local governments around the nation through its City Solutions program.

According to Mark de la Vergne, chief of mobility innovation for the city of Detroit, local governments are behind the curve when it comes to planning for the future of mobility, such as connected and autonomous vehicles.

“It’s a challenge about how you make infrastructure decisions for tomorrow,” he said. “There is a certain level of infrastructure that these companies are all looking for. It’s crazy to think that what’s under the ground is going to be what ends up attracting companies and attracting the talent. But it’s the truth.”

De la Vergne and Ford’s John Kwant discussed that the problem with infrastructure spending is that no one can be completely certain of what the best infrastructure is and what it will be in 10 or 20 years.

During the discussion on transportation technology and mobility, which can be viewed on ARC’s Facebook page, ARC announced a summit it is holding for government officials this fall. At the summit, called ConnectATL, local government leaders will learn more about transportation technology and how they can best prepare their communities for it.

To learn more about LINK, view the LINK trip Tweets and pictures at #AtlLINK and on Instagram at PlanAtlanta or visit ARC’s website.