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As election nears, what do Detroit business, civic leaders want to see next?

Crain’s Detroit Business
Oct. 31, 2021
Annalise Frank and Chad Livengood

Better housing stock for Detroiters. More and greener public spaces. Better public transit.

A seat at the table for Black-owned construction contractors. A continued focus on rebuilding Detroit’s manufacturing base.

And a more equitable recovery from a catastrophic public health crisis that has wreaked havoc on work and daily life in Michigan’s largest city.

That’s just a sampling of the to-do list Detroit business and civic leaders have for the mayor and City Council over the next four years.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is heavily favored in polling to win a third term Tuesday against challenger and former deputy mayor Anthony Adams. Duggan won 72 percent of the vote in the primary to Adams’ 10%, and has done no public campaign appearances while refusing to debate Adams.

“This hasn’t been much of a campaign; the mayor hasn’t broken a sweat,” political adviser and consultant Adolph Mongo said.

City Council will see substantial turnover this year with a widening federal investigation over Detroit’s towing industry, as two of the nine office-holders resigned while pleading guilty to criminal charges and two others decided not to run again.

Going into the election that’s likely to see turnout of less than a quarter of Detroit’s voters, business and civic leaders see a crossroads for the city that has suffered through 19 months of a deadly pandemic. COVID-19 has claimed the lives of more than 2,400 Detroiters so far and the city’s unemployment rate, which saw astounding highs estimated at 45% around the pandemic’s height, is recovering.

Crain’s surveyed these leaders about what should be the mayor and City Council’s priorities in 2022, regardless of the election’s outcome.

Adriel Thornton, Executive Director, MoGo

Thornton believes more of an emphasis should be placed on the greening of Detroit.

The Detroiter, who has been with the nonprofit on-demand bike system for nearly five years, said “greening” the city could happen in a variety of ways, including more bike lanes and developing more transportation for residents and visitors to get around without a car.

“It could be expanding the literal greenness of Detroit, with trees and green space, or maybe it could be accelerating the nonmotorized transportation plan,” said Thornton, who declined to disclose who he’s supporting. “I think the administration has to realize how this is an economic driver. There are studies that show that, especially for small businesses, that people on bikes and pedestrians tend to spend at a 3 to 1 rate at local businesses vs. people in cars. On a bike, or walking, you’re able to see the businesses and you’re able to easily access them.”

Frederick Paul II, Owner, Fahrenheit 313

Paul owns sneaker boutique Fahrenheit 313 on Livernois on the city’s Avenue of Fashion since March 2020. He said district business liaisons establishing and maintaining rapport with business owners is vital as are the vitality of programs such as Motor City Match and TechTown Detroit.

“There are a ton of resources available for small business owners, whether you’re just getting started or looking to expand,” said Paul, who received $25,000 from Motor City Match and a $5,000 TechTown Retail Bootcamp Pitch Showcase award. “I think those programs and organizations should be prioritized because they need funding to remain sustainable, too. Those programs are huge for the small business economy in the city.”

Jason Cole, Executive Director, Michigan Minority Contractors Association

Whoever wins the election, the Detroit-based nonprofit representing and advocating for minority-owned companies wants to see change.

Cole, who endorsed Duggan in 2013, has pivoted to endorse Adams this time around. He says he hasn’t seen the administration take significant action to help Black-owned businesses that work with or want to work with the city.

He and his membership want to see three things: An economic disparity study that shows who does and doesn’t get a “seat at the table” on lucrative government contracts that can do wonders to help a business grow; a prompt payment ordinance to ensure that contractors and subcontractors don’t wait for their money; and not charging Black-owned companies to get certified as a minority business with the government.

“I thought we were going to get some headway in 2018, 2019, pre-COVID, and that just did not happen, for whatever reason,” Cole said. “Anthony Adams speaks more to my community’s needs and concerns so that’s why he got our endorsement.”

He cited Adams’ experience working for minority contractors, calling it “lived experience” for Adams, who has pitched himself as a candidate with a depth of private and public work experience from working under mayors Coleman A. Young and Kwame Kilpatrick to serving as president of Lakeshore Healthcare Investment Group.

Contracting is especially important in the coming years, Cole said, regardless of who wins, with Detroit getting historic federal aid and deciding how and with whom to spend it.

Supporting minority contractors is important for wealth-building and employment, key issues in a city that’s continued to see population decline, Cole added. Detroit’s population dropped 10.5% in the 2020 Census, though Duggan has pledged to challenge it.

“One of the things Mike (Duggan) stood on was, ‘I should be getting elected if we have population gain,'” Cole said. “He does not purport that anymore.”

Dave Meador, Vice Chairman and Chief Administrative Officer, DTE Energy Co.

Meador is a close Duggan ally in Detroit’s corporate community, serving as co-chair of the mayor’s workforce development board. If Duggan is elected to a third term, Meador wants to see the mayor wield his influence outside of Detroit to move the needle on some of the state’s more vexing public policy issues.

Meador points to the Democratic mayor’s success in getting the Republican-controlled Legislature to pass sweeping changes to no-fault auto insurance in 2019 that were aimed at making it more affordable for Detroiters.

“I don’t want to give him an assignment list, but it’d be great if we could take on regional transit and move that forward,” Meador said. “And there might even be statewide things that he can help us with that really needs his leadership and his tenacity.”

In 2015, after the city emerged from bankruptcy, Duggan’s revived Detroit Workforce Development Board set a goal of creating 100,000 new jobs in the city.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic first hitting Michigan in March 2020, Detroit had created 20,000 of those jobs, most of which were wiped away in the early days of the public health crisis.

“We’re almost back to where we were pre-COVID,” Meador said. “We really need to work hard here in terms of economic development, jobs, and focusing on technical training to qualify people for the jobs, because many of the jobs are shifting from college degrees to high school-plus certifications.”

Before the pandemic, Duggan had scored two big wins with automakers.

Stellantis, formerly named Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, invested $1.6 billion into a new Jeep assembly plant on the city’s east side. More than 4,000 Detroiters so far have accepted conditional job offers through a program that let city residents apply first. A couple of auto suppliers followed Stellantis into the city, producing hundreds of additional jobs.

Duggan also helped convince General Motors Co. to retool its Detroit-Hamtramck plant into an all-electric vehicle assembly plant.

In a third term, Meador wants to see Duggan continue focusing on rebuilding the city’s manufacturing base to create jobs that Detroiters without college degrees can get into.

“Take what we were doing (before the pandemic), but we’re going to have to do it on steroids,” Meador said.

Chris Rizik, CEO and Fund Manager, Renaissance Venture Capital

Rizik, who works closely with startups in Detroit and Ann Arbor, sees opportunity for the city to further champion tech innovation. More public dollars could be put to use helping early-stage companies be prepared “for rapid growth,” he said.

Other cities around the state have been able to help form tech ecosystems with readily available seasoned entrepreneurs around to offer advice. But that’s proven more elusive in Detroit.

“The city needs to increase the resources aimed at identifying, mentoring, and providing seed capital to promising entrepreneurs, particularly entrepreneurs of color,” said Rizik, who declined to put a specific dollar amount to such an effort. “To create an intentional infrastructure to prime them for growth – something that Ann Arbor and, to a certain extent, Grand Rapids, have done organically.”

Linda Smith, Executive Director, U SNAP BAC

Smith said it’s up to residents to hold elected officials accountable. She wants to see an administration that focuses on affordable housing for all Detroiters, as well as safe and clean neighborhoods.

“I want what everybody else wants — I want the American Dream,” she said. “It’s a lot. I want community to be community. I want people to go back to caring about other folks.”

Donna Givens Davidson, President and CEO, Eastside Community Network

“I think we have got to center the needs of average Detroit residents in the governance of the city,” Givens Davidson said. “I know that right now living in the city is really difficult for people who are low- to moderate-income. They can’t find affordable, quality housing in the city.”

She cited a University of Michigan study that reported nearly 38,000 households are living in homes that are inadequate, with repair needs and structural problems. Duggan debuted a federally funded program called Renew Detroit to repair around 500 homes per year, but she said it’s not enough, especially considering the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been and are being spent on demolition. Those tear-downs are aimed at removing blight but blight is not static, she said, and more will be created unless the city works to clear up the causes of blight.

“The one thing I can say about the mayor is when the mayor has said he wants something done, he functions with a single-minded focus and says this is what I want to happen … but there has not been a single-minded focus on adequate housing for low-income people,” she said.

Mark Wallace, President and CEO of Detroit Riverfront Conservancy

One way to continue building community is developing more shared outdoor spaces throughout the city, Wallace said. “The city has tremendous momentum in this direction,” he said.

Wallace said the nearly complete riverwalk, the development of Ralph C.Wilson Jr. Centennial Park and the build-out of the 26-mile Joe Louis Greenway bicycle and pedestrian path connecting neighborhoods with the riverfront are evidence of that momentum.

Detroit’s next mayor and City Council need to make development of inclusive and equitable public spaces a continued priority, Wallace said.

“Primarily because it’s important for people to have a sense of community and being in shared physical space is the best way to support and build that community,” said Wallace, a Detroiter who donated to Duggan’s re-election campaign.

Josh Elling, CEO, Jefferson East Inc.

Elling said he has a shortlist for what he wants from the next mayor: “An unrelenting focus on home repair and innovative economic development tools to foster growth in Detroit neighborhoods.”

People have become displaced via dilapidation, he said, and the crushing needs of home repair issues must be solved. Additionally, Elling said, the city must do more to incentivize development in brownfield conditions that make it hard to build.

Lisa Johanon, Housing Director, Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corp.

Johanon said she wants the next mayor to prioritize affordable housing for low-income families.

“That’s our main battle,” she said. “We’re not there yet, and there’s such a great need.”

Also on her list: more streamlined city services. Johanon said it feels like everything takes twice as long as it needs to.

— Crain’s Detroit Business reporters Jay Davis, Nick Manes and Arielle Kass contributed to this report.

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