Detroit is a classic story of a once-thriving city that has lost its employment base, its stellar school system and its upper and middle classes, and is now looking to rebuild for the future. It is difficult to convey the post-apocalyptic nature of Detroit. Miles upon miles of abandoned homes and vacant land are visible in the city. Unemployment, violent crime, and decades of underinvestment have led to a near-complete breakdown of civic infrastructure: the roads are terrible, the police are understaffed, and no one seems to know how to fix the public school system.
The conversation surrounding Detroit’s future can be heard in community meetings, panels, board meetings, and bars around the city. The latest conversation emerged at forum two of the Michigan Chronicle Pancakes and Politics discussion panel.
“A view from the Top: Regional Leaders Discuss Detroit’s Future” was the topic, with commentary from Tonya Allen, president and CEO of The Skillman Foundation, Gary Torgow, Chairman of Chemical Financial Corporation, AT&T Michigan president David Lewis, and Ric DeVore, PNC Bank Regional President for Detroit and Southeast Michigan.
There are private investments being directed to Detroit’s revival, the city exited bankruptcy in 2018, and Mayor Duggan wants to make a fresh start. But it is hard to see how a renaissance can occur without making headway on the public school system. The Detroit Public School Community District (DPSCD) is the largest in the state and has had its failures over the decades, but Allen said the educational decline is statewide, not just in predominately African American areas such as Detroit, Flint, Saginaw, and Pontiac.
“Our children aren’t broken, our schools are not broken, our system is,” said Allen. “A lot of times, we like to point the finger because there is so much despair in our educational system. And we think that if only the students showed up who were ready, and the teachers taught better, the problems will be fixed. Of course, we can do more to support our students and provide professional development to our teachers, but that is not the reason we are having such dramatic declines in education in our state.”
Detroit has made great progress toward addressing the needs of its residents in the last few years. However, one of the city’s most important challenges remains: rebuilding the city’s workforce. The heart of the problem is that there are too few jobs in the city for its residents and too many barriers to employment. Much of the development in the city has gone toward downtown and midtown and Torgow pointed out that all of Detroit needs to reap the benefits.
Chemical Bank is doing its part, moving its headquarters to downtown Detroit in the near future, bringing more than 500 jobs. It was also a part of a team of seven companies that pledged $5 million each to the city of Detroit’s effort to improve streets and parks in neighborhoods beyond the downtown corridor, bringing jobs and a stronger economy beyond downtown.
“We, as a company, believe that, in order for Detroit to succeed, it needs to be inclusive and diverse,” said Torgow. “It needs to give opportunities not only those coming in from out of state, but to our own local Detroiters. If jobs don’t come back to Detroit for Detroiters, we are going to have a real issue in the future.”
The tech market is strong here in Detroit and growing by the day. That has attracted a waves of millennials to move to here, making the city a popular destination for young professionals. The downtown and midtown areas are experiencing a lot of momentum right now and the residential and daytime population has increased significantly. A large portion of these new residents are millennials and are very attractive to tech firms and startups. Detroit will continue to attract more tech activity in the future, but the city needs to be prepared for it all.
“My philosophy is to not come in and think that I know what Detroit needs, but to ask what we can do to help,” said Lewis. “And Grow Detroit’s Young Talent (GDYT) was one of the first groups I was led to. On the millennial side of the equation, we have to know who they are, and in order to attract young talent, we have to know what they need. For Detroit, that includes improving mass transit and leading the way with 5G.”
Forum three of Pancakes and Politics is May 16 at the Detroit Athletic Club.