Detroit and the surrounding region is making a noticeable comeback, but some noticeable stumbling blocks remain, seemed to be the consensus of four panelists joining a lively discussion focusing on regional revitalization Thursday morning at the sold out Pancakes and Politics event, held at the Detroit Athletic Club. Although everyone can see the virtual explosion in construction projects that are taking place in and around downtown Detroit, thorny issues such as Detroit schools and entrenched poverty are obstacles that threaten to derail the progress being made, or at the very least postpone it.
Detroit Mayor Michael Duggan, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Palace Sports and Entertainment Vice Chairman Arn Tellem, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan President and CEO Daniel Loepp covered a range of topics affecting the stability of Detroit’s revitalization. On the county level, the issue of whether or not to ditch the troubled Wayne County jail construction in favor of a glitzy soccer stadium fostered lively debate which was quickly brought back to earth by Evans. The Wayne County Executive pointed out that despite the obviously lopsided support of those in the room in favor of a sparkling new sports structure, the issue is affordability and how to craft a deal that would not stick Wayne County taxpayers with another hefty bill on top of the $150 million already spent on the troubled project.
“It involves dismantling three institutions that are important to the County; not just the jail but the court house and the juvenile detention center,” he said. “While I am not a numbers person by trade, I do know that completing a jail is significantly cheaper than building a new jail, a new courthouse, and a new juvenile detention center. The difference between the completion that we’re working on and that project (soccer stadium) has got to be borne by someone else. That’s protecting the Wayne County taxpayer. And the second part of it is we can’t wait forever to get a jail. We’re paying excessive amounts of money now to keep the existing jail operating. It’s in bad shape, barely constitutional, and so the overhead cost is significant and we can’t continue to pay that price forever. …So I’m excited, and if somebody can catch me before we have signed a deal on finishing this jail, and those requirements can be met in a reasonable sort of way then we would certainly entertain them.”
Tellem conceded that the Wayne County taxpayer should not have to bear the brunt of additional costs. Still, “it’s the perfect site to put a soccer stadium. ..It will create an atmosphere of fans walking to the game, and my hope is we’ll find a way to make it work.”
When the audience was polled about whether they would prefer to see the jail project completed or have a new soccer stadium instead, 75 percent of the audience said to terminate the jail project and go full steam ahead toward the soccer stadium. Evans had a ready reply:
“It’s purely a dollar and cents issue; Wayne County residents, I’m trying to find for them the cheapest way to get a jail built. Period.”
Mayor Duggan chimed in with some support of Evans’ position, saying, “If they hadn’t already sunk $150 million into that site, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
When it came to the issue of Detroit Public Schools, Mayor Duggan said that he has practically been living in Lansing in recent weeks meeting with legislators to get a deal done that will salvage his city’s school system. He said he is optimistic that there will be some form of resolution before the end of June.
“The issue is basically this; the state of Michigan has been in charge of Detroit Public Schools for seven straight years; seven straight years of deficits, and half the students have left. But here’s the thing that is most astonishing to me; there are 200 schools in the city of Detroit, 100 public, 100 charter. A lot of people don’t know that. 160 of them have opened or closed in the last 7 years. Now think about, each of you wherever you live if you’re not in Detroit if 80 percent of the schools in your school district had opened or closed in the last 7 years, how much hell would you be raising?
“It is not enough to just pay money for the deficit the state ran up, and turn it back to the school board and say ‘good luck’. There’s got to be some standards. And of all the schools that have closed the last 7 years? Not one has closed for poor academic performance. Nobody is setting any standards. And so what we have proposed is … let’s have a mayoral appointed education commission that doesn’t run any schools. School board runs public schools, charter boards run charter schools. But we’ll have a single standard. If you want to open a school in a neighborhood, you come to the board. We’ve got some neighborhoods with schools on top of each other, and other areas with 15 square miles. It’s crazy, because nobody’s in charge.
“This is the thing; if you can’t read by 4th grade, and we’ve got schools where fewer than 5 % of the children are reading at grade level by 4th grade … you’re future is being taken away from you by the time you’re 9 years old.
“According to the report from the Education Trust Midwest, the State of Michigan has slipped from 28th to 41st in student achievement in 12 years. That’s across the state. They’re predicting we’ll be 48th in student achievement across America by the end of the next decade. And so you say, how are we gonna compete for the jobs in the next 10-20 years?”
But on the more positive side of the jobs picture, Loepp said that it is much easier to attract top executives to Detroit these days because the word is out about the city’s resurgence.
“I’ve been in this job 10 years now. Recruiting top executives to Detroit is a totally different game today than it was 7,8,9, 10 years ago. And that’s because there’s plenty to offer, and there’s regional collaboration. Everybody’s rowing in the same direction,” he said.
As for the city’s current residents, many of whom may require additional assistance to become qualified for available jobs, Loepp said he views job training as a necessity, not an option.
“Ultimately, if people aren’t educated, it’s difficult for many of them to fit into these jobs. And so you’re either gonna pay for this on the front end or on the back end. I’d much rather pay for it on the front end.”
Moderator Carol Cain, host of the weekly Channel 62 news talk show Michigan Matters, brought up a point made by Gov. Rick Snyder that there are 100,000 jobs currently available that cannot be filled because of the talent gap. But there are other reasons as well for the shortage of candidates that some folks prefer not to talk about as much.
“Certainly as it relates to skilled trades you’ve got to get ahead of that curve, because it takes years to develop the skill. One of the things that troubles me is the data crunching in the first place to identify what the problem really is. We’ve all heard the problem, nobody can pass the drug test. And if it’s an electrical job then it’s a math deficiency. In our traditional way of facing that problem is for us to say, ‘Oh, OK, well forget the people who can’t pass the drug test.’ And now the people who are deficient in math need to go to community college and take Math 100, 101 and 102. That’s never gonna happen. The person who needs it cannot invest in three semesters in school to get the math skill. We need to look at what the core math issue is that they can’t fix and create seminars and things that create the minimum skill level to get the person into the program. And then let’s work out extending the depth of knowledge in math and science or whatever it is.”
“Number two, there’s a serious difference between someone who flunks the test because they’re a heroin addict and someone who flunks the test because he smokes weed in between his unemployment checks. That person can be talked to. There’s a reality check that’s available there; do you want a job, and if you do you have to stop smoking weed. We have to look at it more like that. That’s reality.