December 5, 2019
Detroit Free Press
The Detroit Regional Chamber released its latest annual State of the Region report Thursday, and I have three takeaways from it.
A rich compendium of facts and figures about the 11-county southeast Michigan region, the full report can be found at the website detroitchamber.com.
Useful as a guide and mirror of where metro Detroit finds itself, the packed report defies easy summary. But back to my top three points:
Economy taking a breather
First, the booming growth enjoyed in southeast Michigan and the state as a whole since the Great Recession has finally cooled a bit. Not dramatically so, nor are we in a new recession. It’s just that the above average growth of recent years cannot be sustained forever.
Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Chamber, acknowledged as much as he briefed the media Wednesday on the new report and emphasized the positive.
“Our regional economy continues to grow,” Baruah told reporters. “Jobs continue to grow. Per capita income’s on the rise. Median home values are strong and getting stronger. … Population is up slightly and that is a better direction than in past years. Labor force participation rate, poverty rates, all those have slightly improved in the new data.”
But he continued, “Over the last two years now we have seen some leveling off and in this year in particular we have noticed decreases for some key metrics, including exports, housing permits, foreign direct investment. And our unemployment has actually ticked up just slightly.”
Other data sources have made the same point. Economists generally agree Michigan’s economy will continue to expand for at least another couple of years. But there’s enough hints in the data of a little softening to start putting away a little extra for a rainy day.
Education woes remain a ‘flashing red light’
Second, the State of the Region makes clear that our biggest challenge, or what Baruah calls our “flashing red light,” is the failure of our education system.
Data in the report show that over the past five years, graduation rates in the region have been trending upward, slightly lagging behind the national average. But for city of Detroit students, graduation rates within four years have fallen 1% since 2014.
Then, too, fewer than 10% of city of Detroit high school students are considered college-ready, based on SAT scores above 1,060 or ACT of 21 or higher.
And southeast Michigan high school grads who reach for some post-high school education or train too often drop out. The Chamber report shows that 47% of regional high school grads and 73% of city of Detroit grads have not earned a degree or certificate within six years of enrollment.
And while there are some improvements in a few areas, Baruah added, “It is a very mixed picture. We lag our peers. We lag the nation.”
Given the stakes involved, for our young people and for a region that desperately needs a trained and educated workforce, we have got to put more thought and resources into training our kids for the future.
The region really needs to act like a region
And, third, the Chamber’s report makes me wonder whether this region acts often enough as, well, a region. That is, the disparate communities in the Chamber’s 11-county report too often remain riven by city-suburban rivalries or conflicts between the rural exurbs and the more densely populated communities closer to the center.
True, as Baruah told me, we’ve gotten better at cooperating. That’s especially true now that Democrat Dave Coulter has succeeded the late L. Brooks Patterson as Oakland County executive, smoothing the way for a more cooperative relationship with Democrats Warren Evans in Wayne County and Mike Duggan in Detroit.
“I have never seen the kind the high-level collaboration between the mayor and the three key county executives than I have just in these recent months,” Baruah said in response to my question. “I think that’s a hugely positive sign that we have leaders that are not just willing but are already showing demonstrable evidence that they’re working together.”
That will especially be true as these leaders shape a new referendum on regional transit for the 2020 ballot. They’ll need help from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to get there.
“I think the big thing we’re going to be asking the state for now is support from the governor’s office for updated RTA (regional transit) legislation that will allow our regional leaders to put together a more flexible plan, and we’ve got that support from the governor’s office,” Baruah said.
My conclusion: I hope Sandy Baruah’s right about things looking better on regional transit and a host of other issues. For unless we start thinking of metro Detroit as our unified home, and less like a cluster of fractious competing communities, we’ll never achieve our full potential.
Read the article here