After attending the second installment of The Michigan Chronicle’s recent seventh annual Pancakes & Politics forum, one thing is clear: Regionalism is the new wave.
If the economic revitalization of Michigan’s urban centers has an enemy, it is silos — cumbersome systems that make communication across and within various public and private entities nearly impossible — that need to be demolished. It’s the worst kind of enemy to tackle — invisible, resilient and well-rooted in current systems.
Commonly referred to “information silos,” these constant dividers have been built into municipal systems for an untold number of decades. In different times the stiff-walled grid of bureaucracy may have been useful.
But according to expert panelists speaking at the speakers forum that took place on Thursday, May 3, at the Detroit Athletic Club, times are changing — and fast. Pancakes & Politics, sponsored in part by the Michigan Chronicle’s parent company, Real Times Media, and WWJ Newsradio 950, offered a venue for a lively, realistic discussion between some of the state’s most distinguished experts on economic redevelopment.
There is no one solution, but a better way is not out of reach, panelists agreed.
“Our case is new, we need to think and act anew,” said Dr. H. James Williams, dean of the Seidman College of Business at Grand Valley State University in Allendale. “Politics is local but takes collaboration. We are intertwined so we need to proceed together.”
Williams was part of the high-powered panel that included George Jackson, president and CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp; Harvey Hollins, director of the Detroit-based Michigan Office of Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives; and Tim Terrentine, vice president of Southwest Michigan First, an economic development agency in Kalamazoo.
While talks on how to improve all Michigan cities were addressed, the spotlight for urban reinvention was on the Detroit and the essential regional collaboration between city, county and state. If Michigan’s future is riding on the back of its cities, said panel members, then Detroit is carrying much of the load.
“We have to deal with fiscal realities,” Jackson said regarding Detroit’s finances and the recent controversial consent agreement. “It’s not an unattested model but I think it’s a decision that should have been made years ago.”
Panelists were in agreement that that no city can thrive without the others.
Part of the solution is focusing efforts on the positives that is, not what is missing, but what is there to work with.
“We do our best to squash the negative,” Terrentine said. “We know that together our fates rise and fall. “We in Kalamazoo want Detroit’s success. We’re cheering for Detroit.”
The hour-long discussion proved that the exact next steps in terms of urban economic redevelopment have been tricky to pin down, but one thing remains clear — we have to work together.
“Regional strategy is difficult,” Hollins said, “But it’s a case of collaborate or possibly die. For example, there’s no need for Highland Park to have its own fire station when it’s surrounded by three Detroit fire stations.”
One of the hardest silos to topple is one build around race dynamics.
“Race is a divider,” Hollins said. “More than any place I’ve been, racedivides the Detroit area.Racial tension is severely stunting regionalprogress. Getting light rail across town across Eight Mile, that’s an issue of race. There are so many silos here.”
One of the recent victory in toppling silos came in Kalamazoo.
“We will have one building authority for three different counties and several different townships, one common application for companies that need to build and grow business,” he said.
Terrentine credits selfless leadership to the progress made in his city. If cities are to are going to succeed, he believes and others confirm, there have to be leaders willing to forego the spotlight to get work done.
Terrentine also suggested that bringing younger leadership to the table is crucial.
“We have leadership talking about what will be happening in tenyears and no one in the room is under 50,” he said. “We need to get someone who can help forecast the future that they will be engaging in.”
One new model that was mentioned came from Grand Rapids.
The Grand Rapids Start Garden, announced on Thursday, is a new venture capital fund that will invest $5,000 in two startup ideas every week, then continues to invest more if the ideas gain momentum. The fund is backed by a private fund — a $15 million commitment from the DeVos family. The issue of urban revitalization and its place in the future of the state is a crucial, yet complex one. But the takeaway was positive and encouraging.
“We have to use creative finances to get projects done. What tools we use, how we blend public and private, this is how we get young, educated folks moving into the city,” Terrentine pointed out.
In terms of collaboration, some argue that these mergers are already in Place; they just need to be communicated better.
“We’re already merged,” Terrentne said, noting how commuters depend on cities and vice versa. “The patterns of humanity link us.”
Pancakes & Politiics is one of the year’s most anticipated economic Forums. The next session will be at Birmingham’s Townsend Hotel on May 18 for the annual gathering of the “Big Four” regional leaders: Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel. They will discuss the challenges and opportunities facing Southeast Michigan.
The series will conclude with a return to the DAC on June 15.
Pancakes & Politics is presented in association with Buick, ComcastBusiness Class, Strategic Staffing Solutions and Real Times Media. Additional event sponsors include Medallion sponsors HAP and Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP and corporate contributors including Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, PNC, Quicken Loans and UHY LLP.