The other day, a blog friend posted a quote on Facebook that shocked (but didn't surprise) me:
“Detroit needs to be fixed or forgotten,” according to Charlie Rothstein, Senior Managing Director and Co-Founder of Beringea (Michigan's largest venture capital fund) speaking at a panel discussion on entrepreneurship hosted by The Chaldean News and The Jewish News.
It so happened that I was also scheduled to talk to Detroit City Council Pro Tem Gary Brown that day, so I asked him what he thought of that quote…And he was wonderfully candid.
“I understand their frustration, I really do. Even to the average Detroiter, it seems like we move two steps forward and fall 20 steps back,” Brown said.
But forget about Detroit? No way. No how. Not ever.
“Detroit cannot be forgotten. We have to fix these problems,” Brown said.
I asked him what his priorities are for the city, and he focused on public safety and education.
“Right now, we're trying to cover the basics. First of all, the city has to be safe. It's the perception (of crime) that is making people leave. Second, we have to educate our kids. Both things have to happen simultaneously, and both have to happen in the next few years,” Brown said.
“We know what Detroit's issues are. We have to get our plans in place and we've got to get moving in that direction,” he added. “There's nowhere but up.”
What gives Brown hope for the future? Things like the “Eds and Meds” thing we keep hearing about – educational institutions like Wayne State University plus a thriving medical campus like those at the Henry Ford and Detroit Medical Center. He loves “Penske and the boys” as he put it for the M1 Rail project, bringing a more reasonable mass transit system to the city than that stodgy Peoplemover.
“(M1) passes just about every cultural institution we have,” Brown said. “Another asset is the workforce. We have an abundance of engineers, ready to go back to work.
He's also excited by new businesses moving to Detroit…Blue Cross says it is going to bring up to 4,000. Cindy Pasky just added about 150 to her staff at Strategic Staffing Solutions with hopes of reaching 400 or so. And then there is that Quicken Loans guy, who says he is putting some 5,000 people downtown when they move their headquarters there.
“I am cautiously optimistic. (But) we need a budget under control, and our council has a willingness to be fiscally conservative. The mayor and council are going down the same path, but we need to make more cuts on the front end. We'll get our budget issues under control, I'm sure of that.”
Here's another of my favorite parts: “We've got to get some type of stimulus. We need something – I don't know if (our residents) could be forgiven for federal taxes for 10 years if someone moved into the city. That would really start to build something and move us forward.”
But to do that, the city has to be ready, he said. That means getting the whole rightsizing/downsizing thing in order and ready to go.
What is moving us forward? He pointed to things like the discussions at the recent Mackinac Island conference. “Everyone understands our problems. But do we have the courage to do it? Do we have the political will to make the changes?”
Brown notes how he suggested in the recent budget debate that there be more cuts to the city's police department. That typically is political suicide, especially in a city where crime is relatively rampant! But Brown said he believes there is room for cuts, especially considering the high level of overtime pay this department receives. For example, the Memorial Day Techno fest could have paid for its own policing, and that would have saved the city money, he noted.
“The council has to hold the administration's feet to the fire and the only time we get to do that is budget time. We're asking every dept to sacrifice. There are no sacred cows,” Brown said.
He wants the council to be “fiscally conservative.” Wow – a councilman who doesn't want to spend money? That is music to my ears.
And he also wants people to know Detroit still has a middle class out there – look at neighborhoods like Indian Village, Greenacres (where the delightful Amy Kuras lives) and Palmer Park (remember those awesome Music in Homes concerts? The big ones at the Frank Lloyd Wright house are coming up soon!)
“I wouldn't want to live anywhere else,” Brown said.
I feel you, Prez Pro Tem.