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The Quiet Comeback: Wayne County’s Turnaround a Key to Improved Regional Business Climate

Detroit’s transformation has garnered well-deserved national attention, however, there is another turnaround critical to regional prosperity that has flown a bit under the radar.

While the mantra “Michigan goes as Detroit goes” was central throughout the Detroit bankruptcy process, Michigan’s success is also linked to the overall wellness of Wayne County, which is the most populous county in the state, and 19th in the nation.

“Warren Evans has quietly and competently turned around the financial fortunes of Wayne County in a way that no one really has expected, but he’s done it without a lot of fanfare and that’s been fabulous,” said Detroit Regional Chamber president and CEO Sandy Baruah on “Biz Casual,” a new solutions-oriented weekly segment of “The Craig Fahle Show” on New Michigan Media in partnership with the Chamber.

View the full “Biz Casual” episode below.

As Evans took office in 2015, residents, businesses and potential investors had lost faith in a county government facing fiscal crisis and struggling to deliver its services and resources critical to quality of life, and by extension, the business climate.

“Everything we do in some way impacts quality of life, which is intertwined with business climate,” Evans said. “From maintaining our roads and bridges and parks to health clinics for underserved populations, the same amenities that attract residents attract business by proxy because they need talent.”

Forging a Fiscally Solvent Path

After years of mismanagement and being hammered by the Great Recession, the county sat on the cusp of bankruptcy after seeing property values decrease 25 percent from 2008 to 2014, resulting in a loss of nearly $12 billion in its taxable base and more than $99 million of annual general fund revenue. Problems Evans inherited included accumulated and structural deficits, grossly underfunded pensions, junk bond status and the unfinished jail project.

“Until we came to terms with our fiscal mess, and built a government on a fiscally responsible foundation, we couldn’t begin to do the things that residents and businesses count on us to do,” Evans said.

Fast forward to 2018, and the county is on a fiscally solvent path after completing a consent agreement process with the state of Michigan in 14 months and delivering four straight budgets with projected surpluses. The county has eliminated more than $1 billion in OPEB (other post employment benefits) liabilities, while increasing pension funding from 45 percent to 54 percent and improving the county’s bond rating to investment grade after numerous upgrades by the major rating agencies.

This year alone, the county achieved several key milestones in its recovery plan. Signing a deal with Rock Ventures for a new $533-million criminal justice center not only helped the county address one of its most pressing infrastructure needs, it led to the demolition of the Gratiot Avenue jail, where Rock plans to invest more than $250 million in a mixed-use development at what many consider the gateway to Detroit.

The county also partnered with the city of Trenton and Wayne County Land Bank to sell the McLouth Steel Plant property in Trenton to Crown Enterprise and put it on a path to productive use.

“I am encouraged to see what real, passionate and strong leadership has accomplished,” wrote Ron Hinrichs, president of the Southern Wayne County Regional Chamber of Commerce, in a piece published in the Riverview Register. “McLouth property sale is leadership in action. This deal could mean … transformation of a heavily polluted piece of property to land that is ready for redevelopment.”

Taking the EDGE Off, Creating a Runway for Aerotropolis

Two early decisions have defined the county’s economic development strategy under Evans.

At the start of his tenure, Evans dissolved EDGE — the maligned economic development program — as part of the county’s recovery plan. He opted to forgo overseas business attraction trips and instead focus on supporting current businesses and the climate for economic growth.

“I retooled the county’s economic development program so we could create a more community-focused, back-to-the-basics effort,” Evans said.

While making difficult decisions on funding cuts, Evans maintained the county’s support of Aerotropolis, the four-community, two-county public-private economic development partnership to market 6,000 available acres around Detroit Metropolitan and Willow Run airports.

Since the start of 2017, Aerotropolis has helped close $422 million in corporate expansion projects, attracting global investors including Amazon, Penske, MOPAR, Subaru and Brose, which are expected to create more than 2,600 jobs.

“We’ve gone from being somewhat dismissed locally to being benchmarked by our competitors,” said Aerotropolis executive director Rob Luce. “But none of this momentum would have been possible without the support of our 10 partners, including Wayne County. Our local partners have been phenomenal, and Executive Evans’ support was instrumental in the strides we’ve made.”