Friday, January 07, 2011

STATE OF DETROIT 2011, part 2:
Hypestyle's Manifesto

Local Detroit television station WXYZ TV-7 has an intriguing new initiative called 'Detroit 2020' (www.detroit2020.com) The station says that this will be an ongoing news saga to highlight the state of Detroit (and vicinity) for the next ten years. In particular the station wants to hear from the greater community about good things going on as well as the challenges that are still in place.

This author has spoken on these individual issues to varying degrees (and I have written to any number of elected officials and media outlets), but based in part on the challenge issued, I have prefaced my statements with questions that have come up in various community meetings, such as those initiated by mayor Dave Bing's Detroit Works Project (www.detroitworksproject.com).

What parts of your local economy are working or thriving? What businesses and sectors are expanding and hiring?

Some of the moderate growth industries in the local region include medical office assistants, billing processors, retail sales, and truck driving. There are also currently tax credits in the state of Michigan that involve trying to make Michigan into a major filmmaking region in the country.

What parts of your local economy are not working or thriving? What businesses and sectors have been hit the hardest? What are people struggling with the most?

The parts of Detroit’s economy which are not working mostly involve manufacturing. This cannot be over-stressed. Historically, Detroit has placed an inordinate amount of resources into assuming that the heavy-industrial manufacturing industry would be here forever. There was a time in which various factory and heavy-industry-related jobs were plentiful for local residents, whether they were simply a high school graduate, or even a dropout. At the risk of understatement, that era is over. From the 1960s forward, there has been both drastic and gradual disinvestment, by both larger corporations and smaller businesses, which has economically crippled the city of Detroit and made the metropolitan area much less prosperous than in the past.
Manufacturing as an industry farmed jobs out to foreign countries while downsizing dramatically within our borders. Today, even entry-level jobs at various companies require some form of formal skills training, a degree or certificate. This prevents a high percentage of Detroit residents from even being considered for various jobs. Thus, even so-called blue-collar jobs are not a sure thing for anyone unskilled seeking employment.

All types of businesses have been hit hard, but non-profit organizations have a special challenge- many of their budgets are created with contracts with city, county, and state entities—and also private and corporate donations. All of these resources have dwindled, and so various non-profit organizations that were otherwise providing various community needs (such as parenting classes, counseling, financial literacy training and more) to local populations have similarly scaled back services drastically.

What are the opportunities of growth in your community? What businesses and sectors seem poised to rebound? What do you see as the jobs of the future?

Construction & Building Trades- With all of the blight and urban decay that exists throughout the city of Detroit, the various construction and building trades would be a prime industry to recruit urban Detroit residents for new jobs and start-up businesses. General contracting, electrical, plumbing, heating & cooling, welding, and various related fields are all growth industries. With respect to organized labor, the insular nature of many labor unions must be addressed. There is a statistical lack of racial minority representation in many of these unions that can be dramatically improved. Detroit’s skilled-trade unions should be partnering with Detroit city schools and training students in their respective disciplines, grooming them for future employment after graduation.

Green Industry- There are a number of green-industry jobs that can be initiated in the city of Detroit. Detroit can be a much ‘greener’ city than it is now. Creating new uses for land in the city is an absolute must. A recent Detroit News article identified agriculture as experiencing slight growth in the state of Michigan, despite the ongoing challenges of recession and unemployment. There are those who feel that an urban environment and farming can’t coexist. I disagree vehemently. I feel that there should be a City Department of Agriculture Development that encourages both large-scale commercial farming as well as smaller neighborhood-based farming communes. Schools in the city can also participate- especially with partnerships with state colleges and universities, they can have dedicated plots of land, where students can work on them for credit, especially during the spring and summer. Detroit schools can emphasize earth-science curriculums, leading to career fields as forestry, agriculture, urban planning, botany, new energy, and more. Age-appropriate green-industry jobs training for high school students, college students and non-student adults can be a long-term boost to the local economy.

Film Industry- Detroit is effectively over one-third vacant, taking into account abandoned and otherwise unoccupied housing, decrepit commercial properties, and other landspace that has been allowed to be recklessly reclaimed by nature. Much of this ostensibly available land could be used to house movie production studios and backlots. The city of Detroit should have a Department of Film & Television to work directly with film/TV entrepreneurs and at least one major film studio if it is going to be competitive in the contemporary entertainment industry. One prime spot for a potential film studio location within city boundaries is the abandoned old Packard auto Plant, which covers several acres in the city. Some Detroit city schools should have TV and film-production curriculums to prepare students to enter this industry.

What are the obstacles to job creation in your community? What could make local businesses more likely to start hiring?

One of the major obstacles for job growth in the city of Detroit is education. Detroit’s public schools have a dropout rate of approximately 70%. This is unconscionable and this is an emergency. Detroit’s adult illiteracy rate is approximately 48%. This is also beyond shameful and it is a prohibitive roadblock to hiring local people for newly available jobs. Detroit adults need GED training and basic literacy re-training programs, to help the adult population achieve the baseline competency that competitive jobs require for candidates. State colleges and universities should be ‘adopting’ Detroit city schools and managing them with specialized curriculums such as medical science, physics/engineering, information technology, accounting/finance, and more (with the understanding that upon graduation they would already have some transferable college credits.)

Detroit also faces a major problem for formerly incarcerated persons returning to the community. A high number of Michigan inmates return to Detroit neighborhoods. Typically, these individuals leave prison with no applicable job skills, no immediate prospects for employment and/or training, and with negative attitudes toward rehabilitation. There needs to be more special attention paid to the formerly incarcerated. These persons need access to the mainstream labor pool. This can reduce the rates of recidivism drastically.

Some conditions for which local area businesses could start hiring include, but are not limited to:

Blight Removal- The city of Detroit has an enormous problem with blighted structures throughout the city. Detroit has reportedly as many as 88,000 currently abandoned homes in the city, most of which are structurally unsound. Not only are there abandoned houses, but there are abandoned storefronts, apartment complexes, warehouses, defunct factory grounds and other commercial structures throughout the city. You cannot drive through a neighborhood in the city without encountering a string of structures which are empty, broken-down, and dangerous. These abandoned structures are not only eyesores, but they frequently serve as available locations for criminal and drug-related activities, and also are prime spots for predators to take kidnapped people. It is difficult to get a handle on exactly what type of new developments are possible when there is so much blight that could be removed and this could give city planners a better idea on what type of commercial or residential developments could be beneficial to a given area. The city should have more aggressive statutes in place to fine owners of unkempt properties as well as the means to seize them provided continued inaction on the properties and/or amassing of large, unpaid fines.

Mass Transit: The Southeast Michigan area suffers badly from a lack of a comprehensive mass transit system. As many as one-third of adult Detroit city residents do not own their own vehicle. Minors and the elderly are particularly challenged in this regard. Local insurance rates for urban Detroiters are exorbitantly high, which prompts many individuals to simply not purchase insurance (which is required by the state). Many currently available jobs in the general region are at least several miles (and beyond) from the Detroit city core. For people either trying to find work or getting to work, reliable transportation is a genuine must. Detroit must be able to compete with not only American cities like Seattle, Chicago, New York and Boston, but also London, Tokyo, Berlin, and Beijing. Mass Public Transit not only reduces the greenhouse-gases that individually-owned vehicles make, but also enhances quality of life for residents of a community. People can meet their family and career obligations more easily, and recreational opportunities expand.

There should be multiple light-rail lines throughout the city, especially on its major thoroughfares. The city should be partnering with regional government and business entities to have next-generation buses and street-cars to serve throughout the neighborhoods. 24-hour availability for transit is also a must. Detroit should have special consideration for the proposed initiatives for funding for high-speed rail development and stimulus funds for transit development. Not only would a new mass transit system provide a sizable number of jobs specific to transit operation, but economic redevelopment, including small business development and other jobs, follows any newly implemented transit lines.

Because of the taxpayer bailout of two automobile companies, I feel that the engineering and mass-production/assembly resources at General Motors and Chrysler can and should be used to help design and implement comprehensive mass-transit systems (including but not limited to light rail/high speed rail, and alternative-fuel buses) for use both regionally and nationwide. Other automakers should be recruited for the transit-development process including Honda, Daimler, Toyota, Kia, and more. The American auto industry’s backyard of Detroit and greater Michigan would be great to start pilot projects connecting cities with 21st century transit systems. Previously closed factories can be reopened for the specific purpose of producing rail infrastructure and vehicles.

What other issues and ideas should be considered?

The city of Detroit needs special attention. The city of Detroit must move far beyond being over-dependent on the automobile industry to employ the greater majority of the population, as was the case back in the mid-20th century. The city of Detroit needs nothing less than radical intervention at all possible levels, along the lines of Reconstruction efforts in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. The City of Detroit needs a special economic and educational stimulus plan.

The Coleman A. Young City Airport needs to be expanded vastly. It can serve both consumer use for air travel as well as an air-transportation hub for assorted businesses. City leaders should be looking at the land near the airport for expansion purposes. Ideally, the Detroit City Airport should have at least 3-4 commercial airliners. This can provide jobs for hundreds of city residents. Detroit city schools can have academies that train students for jobs as pilots, airplane maintenance/mechanics, air traffic control, and security.

As you are already aware, Detroit at its peak population could count roughly 2 million citizens within its boundaries, but that was well over 50 years ago. Currently, there are no dramatic repopulation trends anywhere in the city. I would like to see a commission of experts take a survey of Detroit’s boundaries, its neighborhoods, identify pockets of low and high population, and offer incentives for low-density-area residents to move. Land can be reconsolidated for future redevelopment, whether commercial, residential, or civic. The city should have more quality public parks, and it can also have a nature preserve/reforesting initiative.

The city of Detroit should be looked at as an international city. Detroit is situated right next to Windsor, Ontario, Canada. It lies right next to a major waterway, the Detroit River, connected to two Great Lakes. Detroit has cultural diversity from various ethnic groups. I would like to see more direct foreign trade taking place within the confines of the city of Detroit. Business owners from different countries can help provide job training and entrepreneurship training for city residents. Aggressive business outreach should be done with international-based companies (Africa, China, Middle East, South America) to invest in the city, bring their people to reside here and engage in commerce here. Tax incentives may help in this. Detroit desperately needs to attract alternative industries to the core city to provide 21st century jobs.

Lastly, so-called ‘big-box’ retailers and grocers (like Wal-Mart, Target, Kroger, Best Buy, etc.) tend to be extremely fearful of locating outlets in urban Detroit. Thus do many Detroit residents have to go many miles away from home to do their basic shopping, as there are virtually no comparable shopping options in their general neighborhoods. If there are federal and local tax-incentives for entrepreneurs and big-businesses to open in urban Detroit, that would be a boon for job development.

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