January 9, 2017
Laura Trudeau, former managing director of the Kresge Foundation’s Detroit program, reflects on the revitalization efforts made by Kresge over the past 15 years. She also discusses her favorite initiatives and programs, and her commitment to continuing her efforts to help with Detroit’s revival as a Detroit Future City board member. Trudeau retired at the end of 2016.
For 15 years, Laura Trudeau worked at the epicenter of Detroit’s revitalization efforts as head of the Kresge Foundation’s Detroit office.
In that role she helped raise money and catalyze support for numerous important projects and initiatives including the RiverWalk, M-1 Rail, the conversion of Eastern Market from direct city control to a private conservancy model, the Motor City Mapping project, the creation of the New Economy Initiative in which foundations pledged more than $100 million to reinvent Detroit’s economy, and, perhaps most important, the grand bargain during Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy.
The grand bargain saw Kresge and other foundations pour hundreds of millions of dollars into protecting municipal pensions and the artwork at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Trudeau spent 28 years in banking in community relations and philanthropic giving before joining Kresge Foundation in 2001. Trudeau is retiring from the Kresge Foundation at the end of 2016. She spoke with me for an exit interview.
QUESTION: So much has happened during your tenure at Kresge. Can you reflect on some of the progress that Detroit has made?
ANSWER: It’s really been a lot. I think you go back to the beginning of the last decade when we got started with the riverfront. We were working toward the Super Bowl and all of the improvements to downtown that came along with that. We were focusing on Eastern Market and the asset that was presented there. And I think we started to do a lot of really great work and then everything crashed when the foreclosure crisis hit and the autos were having so many challenges.
So before that (crash) we were really coming together around the riverfront and the preparations for the Super Bowl, and to me those two things taught us a new way of working together. We had a lot more cross-sector cooperation come out of those two efforts, where the nonprofits, the business community and philanthropy were all at the table on a regular basis and investing.
Q: Even though those efforts have been reported I’m not sure the full story has ever been told.
A: I agree. And the other thing that we can’t overlook was the New Economy Initiative. I would characterize that as a statement back in 2006 of the importance of economic transformation or transition that resulted in the aggregation of a lot of money before we knew what the path was. So for the first couple of years we were trying to figure out the path, but once it became clear that it should be about entrepreneurship in Detroit, I think that model has been really effective and I think the partnerships that were created among the foundations through that model helped us put in place the partnership required for the grand bargain just because we knew each other and trusted each other.
Q: One big reason philanthropic foundations like Kresge played such a key role these past 15 years is because the foundations represented one of the few pots of money available to help out.
A: I think Kresge came in with a sense that we were not going to be limited to certain types of investments, but that we were going to invest across the spectrum. And we doubled our giving so that gave new resources but also an approach that looked at the whole. And I think that was really useful because we were able to make grants and investments that connected to each other. I think we all learned new ways of working. Each foundation had a role in a different way. The Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan with the New Economy Initiative and the greenways initiative set up some models for philanthropy to work together. Hudson Webber’s focus on the Woodward Corridor is in many ways responsible for what we now think of as the Midtown Miracle. Skillman Foundation and their focus on youth and education has kept us all at the table during the challenges of Detroit public schools
So I think each foundation decided to really step outside of their historical practice and just get involved in new ways. And I don’t think it’s happening quite that same way anywhere else in America. It’s really been a fascinating time to be involved with all of this.
Q: What’s left undone or disappointing for you?
A: I don’t want to get too political, but I think we do have to figure out ways for the state to invest in the rebuilding of these cities. They’ve been amazing on the grand bargain and helping us get through the bankruptcy, but a longer-term source of investment capital to rebuild these cities is going to be needed. And honestly the whole future of the state is going to depend on these cities that really have been disinvested for a long time.
Q: Did you have a favorite project of all the ones you worked on?
A: I don’t want to declare a favorite. I think I’ll declare three favorites: The RiverWalk, Eastern Market and the QLINE. They were all great partnerships and what they all did was turn a tremendous asset into an ever greater asset and a magnet for redevelopment.
Q: Was it disappointing when some people criticized the philanthropic foundations as outsiders telling Detroiters what to do?
A: It didn’t disappoint me because I understood it. I felt like philanthropy hadn’t really made itself known very well. So when people don’t know you they don’t necessarily lead with trust. And I think what that did was force us to be much more transparent about what we do and why we do it. And I think there’s still a ways to go on that. Increasingly we’re hitting the right balance of being transparent without saying, ‘Hey, look at how great we are.’”
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Well, I’m going to get more involved as a volunteer. I’m going to continue to volunteer for the (M-1) rail project and the Riverfront Conservancy, and I’m staying on the board of Invest Detroit and Detroit Future City. I want to keep working on transit, too. I was disappointed that we got the outcome that we did in November. M-1 Rail was really intended to be the catalyst for a broader regional system, so can’t give up on it quite yet.
Q: So you’re going to stay involved?
A: Yes, for sure.