How Detroit’s turnaround began long before bankruptcy

October 14, 2016

So many new developments are popping up around the greater downtown Detroitthat historians may one day try to pinpoint the exact moment when Detroit began its turnaround.

Many no doubt will point to the city’s 2013-2014 trip through municipal bankruptcy.. But choosing the bankruptcy as the turnaround point underestimates groundwork laid earlier, in some cases many years before.

The year 2007, for example, may seem like a random — even silly —  time to pinpoint, with the city sliding toward insolvency and the foreclosure crisis beginning to devastate Detroit neighborhoods.

Yet in 2007 so many good things were already happening. That year, a big section of the RiverWalk opened, Dan Gilbert announced he would move his Quicken Loans headquarters to downtown, the New Economy Initiative launched to encourage entrepreneurship, and D-Town Farm, one of the city’s premier urban agriculture sites, was expanding.

Or go even earlier, to 2000, when the National Football League awarded Detroit its 2006 Super Bowl, civic and business leaders joined in unprecedented cooperation to clean up downtown, enhance the streetscape with wider sidewalks and street lighting and to market the city’s highlights.

In a recent conversation, Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation, suggested to me that the exact date is less important than the change in attitude gradually adopted by Detroit’s philanthropic foundations.

That new attitude focused on ways that philanthropy could play an increasingly aggressive and intimate role in shaping the city’s destiny.

“When it became clear that the public sector was really going to struggle to deliver on its agenda and the private sector was going to be in a bunker for awhile, it was clearer and clearer that philanthropy was going to be the only discretionary capital to be tapped,” Rapson said.

So instead of sitting back and waiting for worthy organizations to apply for grants, foundation leaders from Kresge, the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, the Hudson-Webber Foundation and many others began to actively seek out ways to advance the mission of improving Detroit.

The New Economy Initiative was one such effort. Funded by 12 foundations who contributed more than $100 million, NEI has assisted more than 4,400 companies and helped change the culture in southeast Michigan from one totally dependent on giant corporations to one more nimble and entrepreneurial than before.

Philanthropy, of course, stepped up big time during the city’s bankruptcy, when major contributions from Kresge, Ford Foundation, Community Foundation and others created the “Grand Bargain” that ransomed the artwork at the Detroit Institute of Arts and staved off draconian cuts to pensions of municipal retirees.

“It’s less the sheer money that we threw at the set of issues than it was an attitude,” Rapson said, “and I think what we’ve seen in Detroit over the last decade is a change in attitude on the part of philanthropy about its willingness to step up and take risks.”

As part of this evolution, instead of distinct roles for the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, the lines between them began to blur. Philanthropy and business began to take on responsibilities that government could no longer handle. The creation of the Detroit Future City plan, and the work of the Detroit Blight Task Force, saw foundations and private business playing roles once handled strictly by the city.

Click here to read the full article in The Detroit Free Press.