Asked why urban cities are important to the future of Michigan, Harvey Hollins III, director of the Office of Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives, said that the Brookings Institute did a study through Business Leaders of Michigan and public sector consultants, which showed that Michigan’s 14 top metropolitan areas are home to 82 percent of the state’s population; 84 percent of the state’s jobs; 86 percent of the state’s Gross Domestic Product; 91 percent of post-secondary degree holders; and 85 percent of exports.
“At the center of these metropolitan areas are your cities,” he said. “And the only reason why these metros are what they are and where they are is because of cities. So, to strengthen the state, we have to strengthen our cities.”
The Office of Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives is based in Detroit with branches in Grand Rapids, Flint and Kalamazoo. There are two components of an urban economic development strategy currently in the works: indicators that will be benchmarked internationally, and best practices among those indicators.
“For example, we plan to conduct international research to help identify the ideal number of firefighters and equipment per 100,000 citizens and to utilize that formula as a guide throughout the state. That’s essentially the exercise.”
Hollins said this has been done before, that most governors have an urban agenda.
“The question is how do we create a document or tool that transcends administrations?” he asked, adding that there’s no point in re-creating the wheel.
“We have to have some data that transcends the politics of the state, that tracks our state in a way that everyone keeps their eyes on the ball,” Hollins said.
He acknowledged that, given politics, there will be some nuances to objectives, but said there shouldn’t be a new strategic plan every cycle.
Asked for examples of best practices of cities that have been in similar situations — best practices from which Detroit can learn — Hollins cited both Youngstown, Ohio, and Pittsburgh. Both lost their last steel mills. Youngstown had to come to the decision to be smaller.
“It was a city of X square miles serving so many individuals, and they had to think about actually functioning as a smaller city, which means that they reduced services,” he said. “Their budget was done to accommodate the actual residents they had.”
He added that Youngstown let go of any grand hopes of being the city it was when the steel mills were operating.
“As a result, they’re a much more vibrant place,” he said.
As for Pittsburgh, Hollins said it focused on four primary economic development companies. He described them as anchor institutions that made Pittsburgh work.
Hollins also referenced the book “Saving America’s Great Cities” by David McDonald.
“He (McDonald) says that about 61 percent of the 300 top cities are not in a healthy growth state,” Hollins said.
With respect to Detroit, Hollins believes some long-held historical dispositions need to be modified.
“Not thrown out, but modified,” he emphasized.
An example of one that needs to be modified is the idea that the manufacturing sector will come back in the way it was in the 1940s and 1950s.
On the other hand, he said manufacturing will be a critical component. “In fact, the Brook-ings report suggests that we need to focus on innovation and manufacturing to enhance exports,” he said. “So that’s a good thing about the manufacturing sector.”
Hollins added that there are some reality checks, however. He said Detroit is a city of 140 square miles servicing 700,000 people, and within that footprint it could accommodate Boston, San Francisco and Manhattan. Yet Detroit only has a percent of the combined population of those three cities.
“So we have to get to a strategy where we’re focusing on density and where populations are,” he said.
Hollins also wants new people — especially younger ones — brought into the conversations about the issue, rather than have it continue only among those who’ve been talking about it since before he was born.
“There’s a young group out there that’s facing a different reality,” he said. “They want to move to the city of Detroit. They want to make it work. So, we want to bring them into the conversation as well.”
He also said density in a very small space, where there’s demand for resources and services, and the tax base is sustainable to support the demand, makes a big city work.
Hollins pointed out that the state needs to get out of the business of spreading its resources to thinly, and making sure everybody’s happy, and instead getting to a point where it focuses its resources where the city hopes its demographics will grow.
“This requires the city to exert leadership and direction,” he said. “It requires that the city make better use of its existing master plan, and that all initiatives— including Detroit Works or any future initiative by any future mayor — will be coordinated with that master plan, so that it has longevity over administrations.”
For its part, the state has to get its data assessments right.
“We have to take a very thorough environmental scan of the city of Detroit, of where we’re spending our money,” he said.
He added that we’d get a “better bang for the dollar” by spending money to prevent the onset of blight in a neighborhood than in starting a MSHDA (Michigan State Housing Development Authority) housing project in a neighborhood where there’s only four or five people on a block. He said the “if you build it they will come” concept only happens in the movies, “as far as urban planning and city politics go.”
From a statewide perspective, many cities have similar issues,
Hollins said. These include revenue sharing and deteriorating housing stock due to foreclosures.
“We’re able to develop teams and stakeholders on the ground to drill up to what they think will work to solve those similar crises,” he said. “And what we’ll find is there may be some commonality in terms of policy that we can through as a state.”
He also said Gov. Snyder wants to focus on growing Detroit and creating jobs.
There also needs to be training for some 80,000 jobs available state-wide.
“A lot of these jobs are high-skilled and we don’t have the work force ready to just go into them,” Hollins said.
He added that he doesn’t just want people working in Detroit, he wants them to live there, too. Or spend the majority of their time in the city, enjoying its amenities. He said it helps the state’s bottom line if a company hires 500 people, but if those 500 people work in Detroit, but leave for a suburb at 5:00, then the city is still where it has been.
He said the governor is clear on his desire to revitalize urban centers.
“It’s goal number five on his 10-point goal when he did his state of the state address in 2011 to restore our cities,” Hollins said. “We’re doing things that will create the job climate for our state; that will retain our youth in our state; that will reform government and make it more efficient. And if the result is people are being employed, and our cities stop losing population, stop bleeding, that’s our goal. We just want to see it or make sure we’re on the right trajectory to achieve it as a state.”