Why Detroit’s New Mayor Thinks His City Is Poised for an Economic Reinvention

Detroit may be broke with a poor record of public safety and blight, but that’s not stopping its recently elected mayor from marveling at its entrepreneurial spirit.

Mike Duggan celebrates his election as the new mayor of Detroit at a victory party on Nov. 5, 2013.
National Journal
Tim Alberta
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Tim Alberta
Feb. 25, 2014, 4:17 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a weeklong Amer­ica 360 series on De­troit.

Mike Dug­gan knows what he’s got­ten him­self in­to. A suc­cess­ful former hos­pit­al ex­ec­ut­ive and county pro­sec­utor, Dug­gan was sworn in last month as the 75th may­or of De­troit. He takes over a city that has lost half its pop­u­la­tion since 1950 and now faces sys­tem­ic chal­lenges of crime, cor­rup­tion, and blight — not to men­tion more than $18 bil­lion in long-term li­ab­il­it­ies as part of the largest mu­ni­cip­al bank­ruptcy in Amer­ic­an his­tory.

Noth­ing came easy for Dug­gan in his quest to be­come De­troit’s first white may­or in some 40 years. After be­ing dis­qual­i­fied from the may­or­al bal­lot in 2012 for fail­ing to meet res­id­ency re­quire­ments, Dug­gan moun­ted a his­tor­ic write-in cam­paign that claimed one of the top two spots in the Demo­crat­ic primary. Later, he won the gen­er­al-elec­tion run­off. Dug­gan spoke re­cently with Na­tion­al Journ­al at his down­town of­fice about De­troit’s en­tre­pren­eur­i­al spir­it, its abil­ity to mount an eco­nom­ic comeback, and his plan to re­store con­fid­ence in city gov­ern­ment. Ed­ited ex­cerpts fol­low.

When people talk about trans­form­ing De­troit’s eco­nomy, it’s tough to even know where that con­ver­sa­tion be­gins. What are the fun­da­ment­als that need to be in place for this city to start re­build­ing its eco­nomy?

I start at the same place I star­ted at the De­troit Med­ic­al Cen­ter 10 years ago. We came in­to a hos­pit­al sys­tem when people said a hos­pit­al couldn’t make it in De­troit. We star­ted with 11,000 em­ploy­ees and when I left we had 14,000 em­ploy­ees. We did a good job of de­liv­er­ing ser­vice. And my job, at this point, is to provide ba­sic city ser­vices: Make sure the po­lice show up, the am­bu­lances show up, the buses run on time, the streets are plowed, the garbage is picked up. Really we just need to provide those ba­sic ser­vices. I learned in the hos­pit­al busi­ness that if you do the ba­sics very well the res­ults will take care of them­selves.

What oth­er les­sons from the private sec­tor do you bring to the may­or’s of­fice?

I think everything’s the same. Man­age­ment is man­age­ment. So you get the right people in­to the right jobs, and you get them to de­liv­er the ser­vices they’re sup­posed to de­liv­er. The eco­nomy of De­troit has been grow­ing even in an era where city gov­ern­ment was either cor­rupt or in­ef­fect­ive. That in­vest­ment was com­ing here be­fore, when people didn’t have any con­fid­ence in city gov­ern­ment. Now I’m go­ing to prove that the city is gov­ern­able, that it’s man­age­able, and that should make people even more en­cour­aged.

You asked De­troiters, after tak­ing of­fice, to give you six months to ad­dress these is­sues be­fore they de­cide to give up on the city and move else­where. Is that a real­ist­ic timetable?

Well, we’re gonna see. But I don’t say things without think­ing about them. A big part of our prob­lem has been a feel­ing of hope­less­ness: that the garbage sits there for days; that [snow] plows may not come; that the street lights don’t work; that nobody ever deals with the aban­doned houses. There’s al­most a sense that we’ve giv­en up hope. So what I think I can do in six months is prove the city can be run com­pet­ently, and there’s good reas­on to be­lieve that your qual­ity of life is go­ing to get bet­ter, and your prop­erty val­ues are go­ing to go up, and you ought to stick with us for the ride.

As you be­gin that six-month stretch, what is your top pri­or­ity?

Just es­tab­lish con­fid­ence in people. They’re not the least bit in­ter­ested in what I have to say. They really are in­ter­ested in see­ing something dif­fer­ent. And I think you’re go­ing to see us do some things. I think you’re go­ing to see the bus ser­vice vis­ibly bet­ter; I think you’re go­ing to see a first-class plan to fix the street­lights; I think you’re go­ing to see an ag­gress­ive plan to deal with the aban­doned build­ings — not just knock ‘em down, but save the ones that can be saved. I think you’re go­ing to see us do things to re­duce as­sess­ments, to re­duce prop­erty taxes of our homeown­ers. I think you’re go­ing to see a num­ber of con­crete steps.

Are there spe­cif­ic in­cid­ents or an­ec­dotes you can re­call that have been en­cour­aging to you that show how De­troit is com­ing back?

You can feel it in down­town and midtown. Cer­tainly people in the neigh­bor­hoods are not feel­ing it yet, so we’ve got a lot of work to do there. But you know, I ran in­to a fel­low who’s a waiter at an east-side res­taur­ant earli­er this week. And he told me he just moved from Brook­lyn and that he and his girl­friend are open­ing an or­gan­ic mar­ket in an area on the east side of De­troit where you wouldn’t ex­pect that to hap­pen. And he said, “I nev­er would have had the op­por­tun­ity in New York or Chica­go to do this, but we can come here and do it.” And so there is a feel­ing, I think, in lots of parts of the coun­try, that you can get in here far more cheaply and have a much big­ger im­pact in a short­er peri­od of time if you’re in De­troit. And that kind of rebel spir­it that is present in so many en­tre­pren­eurs is find­ing fer­tile ground here.

Rebel spir­it?

(Laughs.) There’s no ques­tion — every en­tre­pren­eur has a little bit of rebel to start with. But those who are real rebels tend to find their way here. And there are lots of them. So we’ve got to do a few things. We’ve got to start to take the rebels who live in our own com­munity and do a much bet­ter job of cre­at­ing en­tre­pren­eur­i­al tracks. And also, what Gov. (Rick) Snyder an­nounced in try­ing to open up this com­munity to im­mig­rants in a more ef­fect­ive way. We want to cre­ate an en­vir­on­ment where this is where you want to come and start your busi­ness.

What do you see as the biggest bar­ri­ers to re­in­vent­ing the eco­nomy in De­troit?

You know, I don’t — no bar­ri­ers come to mind.

Really? What about the neg­at­ive per­cep­tion of pub­lic safety in the city?

I can’t really com­ment on that be­cause the emer­gency man­ager has not seen fit to put me in charge of pub­lic safety. So you’re go­ing to have ask him about that.

But soon, as of this fall, your au­thor­ity will ex­tend to that area. What then?

At that point I will have a very ag­gress­ive pub­lic-safety plan.

As you noted, some of your of­fi­cial du­ties have been cur­tailed by Emer­gency Man­ager Kevyn Orr.* What is your re­la­tion­ship like with him?

Very pro­fes­sion­al.

Do you look for­ward to gain­ing more au­thor­ity over the city?

I al­ways be­lieve that I have the abil­ity to man­age things. But the real­ity is what it is. Kevyn Orr and I have a very pro­fes­sion­al re­la­tion­ship. We don’t have any trouble un­der­stand­ing what we’ve each agreed to do. I have plenty of things to solve. And in eight more months he will move on, and I ex­pect the trans­ition back to elec­ted lead­er­ship of this city to be seam­less.

It sounds like your sales pitch, to res­id­ents and busi­nesses, is about break­ing from the past. It’s all about good gov­ern­ment — one that’s ef­fect­ive and not cor­rupt. Is that fair?

Yeah, and not just that, but we’ve got gov­ern­ment lead­ers who be­have like adults. And I think that’s what you’re see­ing right now. You’ve got the lead­er­ship of the City Coun­cil and the may­or’s of­fice who are be­hav­ing like adults. You have an emer­gency man­ager and a may­or who are be­hav­ing like adults. So we’ve got a lot of dis­agree­ments, but you’re not see­ing us throw tan­trums. We’re sit­ting in a room and grind­ing through them — and that’s the way it should be.

You’re a white may­or in an 85 per­cent black city. What is the dy­nam­ic there? Do you think that is­sue is settled now that the cam­paign is over with?

It was settled be­fore the cam­paign was over with. It’s just that my op­pon­ent didn’t real­ize it. The city got past that a long time ago. You go out with me and most of the time I’m the only Caucasi­an in the room. Nobody cares. What they want to know is: “What’s my plan for the aban­doned house on their block? What’s my plan to get the bus to show up?” They don’t care what col­or I am. What they care about is, “Do I care about the city? And do I have the abil­ity to make it bet­ter?” This city over­whelm­ingly does not care what col­or you are, or what re­li­gion you are, or where you’re from. They want to know, what’s in your heart? And can you per­form?

*Dug­gan’s power as may­or is lim­ited. De­troit is un­der the su­per­vi­sion of state-ap­poin­ted Emer­gency Man­ager Kevyn Orr, a Wash­ing­ton, D.C., law­yer who last week in fed­er­al court filed a “plan of ad­just­ment” to bal­ance the city’s books by slash­ing city pen­sions and re­struc­tur­ing cred­it­or agree­ments. Orr’s con­trol over the city’s fin­ances and op­er­a­tions has es­sen­tially robbed De­troit — fam­ously known as “the Ar­sen­al of Demo­cracy” — of demo­crat­ic gov­ernance. Orr has re­tained au­thor­ity over the po­lice de­part­ment, but in a power-shar­ing agree­ment gave Dug­gan con­trol of most day-to-day op­er­a­tions. Orr has set a Septem­ber timetable for leav­ing De­troit after the city exits bank­ruptcy.

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