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Celebrate Detroit: The Comeback Is Real!

May 11, 2018


By: Tom Watkins

There ought to be a whole lotta celebratin’ going on during the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference at the end of the month about just how far the City of Detroit has come since emerging from bankruptcy several years ago.

Have we reached the Promised Land?  Far from it, yet celebrating positive milestones is certainly justified.  If Saulte St. Marie can celebrate its 350th anniversary, President Trump’s recent endorsement to rebuild the Soo Locks, and WSU its 150th year, then celebrating Detroit’s re-birth certainly seems justified.

Three years after emerging from the largest municipal bankruptcy in the history of America, Detroit posts a $36 million operating surplus for fiscal year 2018 and has been released from active state oversight. The nine-member state review commission unanimously voted to return financial control to the mayor and City Council after Detroit delivered three consecutive years of audited balanced budgets.

Under an Emergency Manager appointed by Governor Snyder, the city filed for bankruptcy in 2013. Detroit exited bankruptcy in December 2014 after restructuring approximately $7 billion in debt.  Detroit must stay in the black for 7 additional years before the financial oversite commission is fully dismantled.

During this same week Detroit was symbolically rising from the ashes, the Urban Land Institute, the national nonprofit association of city builders and real estate developers—drawn by the city’s recent success—held its spring meeting in Detroit for the first time in 40 years.

Trish Healy, ULI Americas Chairman is quoted by an Detroit Free Press journalist John Gallagher as saying, “Our members want to go to cities that have lessons that they can learn and take back to their cities, and Detroit’s a natural … We’re in the business of city building and making our cities better, so I think the lessons we can learn in terms of disruption, solutions, regeneration, that’s what Detroit has to give.”

As if this wasn’t enough, The New York Times weighed in with a photo story of its own, recently noting that Detroit’s come back is real in, Detroit Was Crumbling, Here’s How It’s Reviving

Others’ Reflections on Detroit’s Turnaround

  • “When I moved to Detroit from Atlanta in 1998 friends could not understand why I would do so. Indeed, there were some days when I also wondered about such a move. Atlanta was a vibrant city with many options for living, entertainment, and community engagement. Detroit was a slow, somewhat depressing place. However today, those same friends look forward to coming to visit. The new restaurants, community theaters, parks, events, and major conventions are attractions that we did not envision in 1998. And, it is not only downtown. The Livernois corridor, in my neighborhood, is growing and attractive. The renaissance is real and it is exciting to be a part of building a revitalized city on the strong foundation laid by the many Detroiters who have called the city home long before I arrived.” —Glenda Price, President Emerita, Marygrove College & Retired CEO, Detroit Public School’s Foundation.
  • U.S. Senator, Debbie Stabenow reminds us, “We are making great progress by revitalizing a number of neighborhoods and attracting new businesses and investment. Rebuilding Detroit is not done though until prosperity and opportunity touch every neighborhood and every public school in the city.”
  • Gov. Rick Snyder: “Today’s vote validates Detroit’s remarkable progress and the path toward continued financial stability. Detroit is America’s comeback City and I have every confidence that we will continue to see Detroit reach new heights under the city’s leadership.”
  • Lt. Governor Brian Calley: “Detroit was in decline for decades. It took real and strong leadership to guide the city through bankruptcy so that the city could begin to recover, grow and build. It could only work if people came together. The amazing thing is that business, philanthropy, government, and people from across the political spectrum did come together. Detroit is America’s best example of what can happen when people put differences aside to take on the toughest challenge.”
  • “Mayor Duggan and the City Council have done an incredible job of leading Detroit’s comeback. The city has undergone an amazing transformation over the past few years, but there’s still so much more good work to be done. To keep the momentum going,  Mayor Duggan needs a partner in the governor’s office he can work with to fix the damn roads, invest in education and skills training to create more good-paying jobs for Detroiters, and expand access to quality, affordable health care for families. By working together, we can get it done and build a better Michigan for everyone.”  —Former Senate Democratic Leader and Ingham County Prosecutor and Democratic Candidate for Governor, Gretchen Whitmer
  • Bill Nowling, former spokesman for Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr during the city’s bankruptcy period stated:  “We are all very pleased to see that the Plan of Adjustment has enabled the City to transition out from active state oversight in an expedient, stable and sustainable fashion.”


Daniel Howes, noted Detroit News business columnist seems to have gotten it right when he said, “Capital goes where it’s invited and stays where it’s welcomed.

Continued business bullishness on Detroit — by the Ilitches, entrepreneur-investor Dan Gilbert, Ford Motor Company with its emerging designs for Corktown —all are seen as votes of confidence in Mayor Mike Duggan and the Detroit City Council.  An investment that creates tax-paying jobs and revives real estate drives what the city needs most to cope with obligations deferred in Chapter 9 bankruptcy: growing municipal revenue.”

Today, FoMoCo truly does have a better idea.  Ford, on its way back in more ways than one, plans to buy the decades-old, Michigan Central Train Station in Detroit – another reminder of how far the City has come. Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. is driving the push for the company to re-establish a major presence in Detroit some two decades after the company’s last employees left their company headquarters in the riverfront Renaissance Center, whose construction was led by Edsel Ford II’s father, Henry Ford II.

On Monday, Edsel B. Ford II said that the automaker’s board of directors “has been briefed” on fast-moving plans to purchase the long-vacant Michigan Central Station in Detroit as part of a “big redevelopment” of Corktown. A decision could come as early as mid-May.

The Detroit Free Press reports that “the Detroit Zoo is actively pushing to construct a large aquarium on the downtown Detroit riverfront — possibly on prime vacant land next to Hart Plaza — that could draw 1 million visitors a year.”

Two major players in Detroit’s rebirth, Dan Gilbert, and the Ilitch family continue to tout Detroit real estate every chance they get and especially to a national group of real estate professionals recently in town for a convention.

Others Notice

This past year The New York Times dubbed Detroit “The Most Exciting City in America.”

Brett Keller, CEO of Priceline, said the online travel agency has seen an interesting rise in travel in Detroit and it has become a top destination.

Leadership Matters

During Detroit’s attempted comeback in the 70’s, slogans like, “Say Nice Things About Detroit” and proclamations of “Detroit – The Renaissance City” hoped to make it so. Today, it’s all about leadership. When the final chapter of those that helped Detroit reach this day in the 21st century is written, many names will be mentioned – those who stepped forward to help ignite the comeback of an iconic and historical American City. Here are a few of those names, in no special order, and the institutions who deserve some of the credit for bringing us to this point:

Gov Rick Snyder, former Mayor Dave Bing, the Foundation Community, Judge Steven W. Rhodes, US District Judge Victoria Roberts, former State Treasurer Andy Dillon.
Former Michigan House of Representatives Jase Bolger, Former City Council President, and Mayor Ken Cockrel, Detroit City Council, Mayor Mike Duggan, Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr.
The Illich family, Detroit Regional Chamber CEO Sandy Baruah, former State Sen. Randy Richardville, former State Rep. Thomas Stallworth, Mediator Eugene Driker.
Businessman Dan Gilbert, City of Detroit workers and pensioners, City unions, Chief Judge for the Eastern District Michigan Gerald Rosen, the Michigan taxpayers and most importantly the citizens of Detroit who have suffered through the bad times and deserve to benefit more from the good times.
I am certain I have forgotten someone— if so, please add them to the list of the people and institutions that Detroit’s rebirth has benefited from.

It seems a little celebration on Mackinac Island to mark this milestone is in order. It will be home for multiple days to leaders and planners, dreamers and politicians, plotters and schmoozer and snoozers. All will network the future of Detroit.

The next step would be for some deep-pocketed individuals, corporations, or foundations to host a thank-you party for the citizens of Detroit on Belle Isle for their tenacity, spirit, and determination – the very foundation upon which our city and region is built.

Thank you Detroit and Detroiters!