Monday, April 09, 2012

DETROIT NEEDS TO LOOK TO THE PAST TO SEE ITS FUTURE


There has been a lot of well-meaning but empty rhetoric about “job creation” in the city and state. When people speak of “jobs” in Detroit, I think it has to be parsed out exactly what type of jobs jobseekers are looking for, and from there just what type of jobs are jobseekers qualified for?

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, such as 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—which have come to define much of the city’s cultural identity—are not a sure thing for anyone unskilled seeking employment.

In light of recent developments with the consent agreement between the City of Detroit and state government, there needs to be a state/city partnership on job creation. All the principals involved in managing Detroit city government need to start thinking outside of the box. If urban Detroit’s real unemployment lies between the state’s official rate of roughly 18% and the higher unofficial estimate of nearly 50%, then unemployment for Detroiters is an emergency that needs to be directly addressed. If cash help to the city coffers from Lansing is out of the question, then a pragmatic alternative would be to start a sweeping program to address unemployment in the city.

Specifically, I submit that Governor Rick Snyder and the Michigan state legislature need to create a Michigan version of the Civilian Conservation Corps and/or the Public Works Administration, both of which were federal initiatives that took place during the Franklin Roosevelt presidential administration. These modern-day CCC and PWA programs would directly target currently unemployed and underemployed Detroiters, and put them to work tackling large-scale infrastructure and land-management projects.
Such projects should include, but not be limited to:

Blight removal: Detroit has a notoriously visible problem with blighted structures: houses, apartment buildings, storefronts, warehouses, abandoned factories and other commercial structures. These abandoned structures are not only eyesores, but they are hotspots for criminal activity and dangerous for passers-by with respect to loose debris. 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.

Recycling- A city-wide curbside recycling needs to be instituted, expanding the recent pilot program for certain neighborhoods. Recycling efforts can also incorporate organic materials recycling, especially that which comes from abandoned lots.

Landscaping- Much of Detroit’s landspace has recklessly been reclaimed by nature, and the trend continues. Illegal dumping and general inattention by landowners has made many neighborhoods look grossly inhospitable. Further, abandoned former industrial sites throughout the city have left contaminated land that needs to be redeveloped for future use. Brownfield redevelopment could be a key element to Detroit’s long-term revival.

Local electrical grid and lighting: There is no excuse for a modern city like Detroit to have the problems it has with public lighting. A full revamp of Detroit’s electrical grid and lighting system needs to take place.

Local water/sewerage system: Similarly, Detroit’s water system is in dire need of comprehensive repair. This is an initiative that could put many Detroiters to work and will help in making the city more green-friendly.

As far as partners in this effort, Michigan’s corporate and philanthropic communities should be recruited for co-underwriting and other resources. Detroit’s many skilled-trade unions should be partnering in this initiative, training people in their respective disciplines, grooming them for future employment even after certain projects reach their climax.

I am not someone who feels that government “cannot” create jobs. By default, any paid public official who promotes this notion is being intellectually dishonest. Large-scale government-initiated job creation has been done in the past, and it can happen again. If the re-visioning of Detroit is going to work, it has to incorporate a means of addressing core infrastructure issues for the long-term and not just budget-cutting to save money for the fiscal year. I want Detroit to work as a city, and I want Detroiters to feel as if they have a direct hand in remaking the city into what it could be.

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