It’s easy for those of us in West Michigan to feel smug when we read about the problems facing Detroit. The Motor City and Holland may be 180 miles apart on the map, but Detroit’s crime, poverty, fractious politics and fiscal distress seem a million miles away from our side of the state, where even the worst pockets of urban blight are dwarfed by Detroit’s dysfunction. Every week seems to bring a new report of woe for Detroit, like the damning report of a state financial review board or Detroit’s recent status as No. 1 on Forbes’ listing of most “miserable” cities.
When we hear that things have gotten so bad in Detroit that a state-appointed emergency manager may take over Detroit’s finances, the natural reaction is “So what?” or at best “That’s too bad.” The truth though is that the health of Detroit matters to everyone in Michigan, even in the parts they somewhat condescendingly refer to as “outstate.” Michigan cannot regain its former strength when its biggest city is a drag on its economy rather than an engine. Everyone in Michigan has a stake in the success of efforts to stabilize and turn around Detroit.
Historically, metropolitan centers have provided the size, the diversity and the cultural and physical infrastructure to develop new ideas and power economic growth. It’s not rural communities and bedroom suburbs that power high-income states such as Massachusetts, Minnesota and Colorado - it’s thriving urban centers like Boston, Minneapolis and Denver. For all its progress and its positive buzz, a place like Grand Rapids isn’t big enough to propel its state forward. Even with its population half of what it was in the 1950s, Detroit is almost four times the size of Grand Rapids. As Dan Gilmartin, CEO of the Michigan Municipal League writes, “Detroit is the beating heart that is big enough and strong enough to keep Michigan’s lifeblood flowing.”
Appointing an emergency financial manager, as Gov. Snyder is expected to do, won’t by itself reverse Detroit’s fortunes. The city’s problems run deep, and have been more than half a century in the making. Even with an emergency manager making the financial decisions, Detroit may still wind up in bankruptcy court, to address its $330 million in acccumlated deficits and $15 billion in long-term debt. But fixing Detroit’s finances is an essential first step. An emergency manager may be able to stanch the bleeding, allowing Detroit to restore a level of solvency that enables it to provide the basic services needed to make it a livable place for families. That would be a start for making the city that once put America on wheels the city that drives Michigan again.
The Holland Sentinel