Open Letter to Rick Snyder: from a concerned customer

“The reinvention of Michigan must not leave anyone behind.”
– Rick Snyder (Inaugural Address, Jan. 1, 2011)

Dear Governor Snyder,

Michigan has a long history with big corporations, many which have recently come under severe scrutiny. My generation has watched as numerous corporations from Enron to GM have put their own interests first and have hurt many communities, families, and people in the process. What Michigan needs is not tax breaks and improvements for corporations, but rather improvements for communities of people who are the heart and soul of our state.

I’m not sure where your economic and development theories come from, but a “shock doctrine” just won’t work (just ask Jeff Sachs what the long-term benefits to the Bolivian economy were). There is no way that Michigan’s economic slate can be wiped clean for whatever changes you want to push. Economic development is never independent of history or social consequences. The success of neoliberal economics in further marginalizing populations that are already marginalized is appalling.

In the name of the economy, you have submitted a budget plan that not only further marginalizes populations in need, but also allows for a future of corporate control in our state (emergency financial managers). Taxing pensions of the elderly, cutting incentives for the middle class, slashing tax credits for the working poor, eliminating health benefits for same-sex partners, and crippling the powers of unions and public employees are all powerful representations of your social agenda being masked by your “economic” reforms. There will soon be 2 classes in Michigan, the wealthy and everyone else.

Time and again, in economic development models implemented in communities around the world the need is not for an environment where corporations can thrive, but rather an environment where communities can build and create. People need to be empowered to grow their own communities and create opportunities for collaboration. If you truly believe that Michigan needs an “era of innovation” then you need to look closer at policies that will have long-term impacts for the state.

One long-term impact that you should highly consider is supporting an ‘ideas economy’ through higher education. Young people are struggling enough as it is to graduate with the least amount of debt possible and then find a job (one likely not in Michigan). Adding a 15% cut to higher education funding (on top of 18% cuts since 2002) will cause young people to consider more options outside of Michigan and force universities to fire numerous faculty and employees. How will our universities remain “world class” with these cuts?

Writing as a young person born and raised in this great state, I am concerned with your chosen direction. Reinventing Michigan shouldn’t rely on failed economic models and policies of the past. Your campaign of hollow words paired with your short-sighted economic reforms demonstrates your lack of commitment to the State of Michigan and its people, who you are leaving behind in great numbers.

grand rapids can’t afford for detroit to fail

One of the recent articles from “Assignment Detroit” in Fortune Magazine attempts to say that Detroit needs to learn from Grand Rapids. The content that follows in the article goes on to prove that Grand Rapids is not like Detroit at all.

The article was titled, “A Michigan Success Story” with the tagline: “Its not the kind of view you expect these days in downtrodden Michigan”. It seems they can never give a clear message about Michigan or Detroit. Its a success, but downtrodden. Its working hard, but never making the mark. Let’s jump right in – so it is true, Grand Rapids is growing, has retained young people, and has significant investment in higher education and medical services – but that does not mean Detroit can replicate the business successes of this tiny West Michigan city.

Grand Rapids is not similar to Detroit. They had different industries, different populations, and different mean levels of income. From the article:

“thanks to a combination of business leadership, public-private cooperation, and the deep pockets of local philanthropists.” 

This picture is not as visible in Detroit, the deep pockets of philanthrophy don’t reach as far in a significantly larger city with a larger population (ever with Detroit’s population decline). Retired Chairman and CEO of Old Kent Bank, John Canepa is quoted saying,

“But Grand Rapids had an unusual set of assets. The wealth in this city in proportion to its size is extraordinary.” 

The Amway corporation and family, DeVos (whose name appears on far too many things in Grand Rapids), Steelcase and Meijer.

“The founders of those companies and their descendants still reside in Grand Rapids area, and match their deep roots with deep pockets of philanthropic dollars.” 

The article’s author is defeating his own argument with each quote he gets from local Grand Rapids leaders. They recognize that there were some similarities in how the decline in industry had effects on both cities, but are not as naive to think that what worked for Grand Rapids will work for Detroit.

Unemployment in Grand Rapids is still very high and not surprisingly this disproportionately affects minority communities. Detroit is a city of minorities, unlike Grand Rapids that holds its roots in the white, anglo-saxon, protestant traditions with traceable histories, long roots to local areas, propped by family assets and connections. The city government of Grand Rapids is also facing serious budget cutting and is working with unions to decrease benefits.

Grand Rapids is the “greenest city in the US” with more LEED-certified buildings per capita. This could also be attributed to the growing trends in environmental sustainability and the wealth that exists in Grand Rapids. Where Detroit can take a lesson is in offering more opportunities for Green Jobs. The Grand Rapids Community College just opened excellent training courses for various “green” industries. I will begin writing more about “green” solutions in following posts.

Detroit doesn’t have the hard cash wealth that Grand Rapids has, but it does have other rich assets when it comes to new ideas and initiatives for improvement. As in Grand Rapids, these ideas don’t come from the government or its funds.

A last final and important take-away from the article was a quote from Mayor George Heartwell, “we can’t afford to see Detroit fail. But if Grand Rapids recovery took two decades, how long will it take Detroit?”
No one can afford for Detroit to fail.

your thumbprint stays the same

Over the course of your life you will grow and your fingerprints will grow along with you, except for your thumbprint. Michigan is much like your fingerprints and Detroit is the thumbprint. As the state has grown (sometimes negative growth), Detroit has remained the same, “trapped” if you will, in its post-automobile slump. Alright, so I know Detroit isn’t in the thumb of Michigan, but it was nice analogy. Beyond the images of Detroit’s destruction lie the seeds of real growth. The economic situation of Detroit isn’t all lost and the state doesn’t need to sign on to stimulating reforms to make it happen.

Few people seem to grasp that the economic situation of Detroit reflects that of the state of Michigan. Where, unfortunately, politics plays a larger role. For many years there has been an unspoken clash between the former economic power that was Detroit and the political power that is Lansing. With Detroit’s decline, no region of Michigan has been able to match and replace the city’s production power and “driving” economic engine. To the rest of the world Michigan is Detroit and until politicians in Lansing recognize that fact – then the state may be doomed. However, the issue goes far beyond image, as I wrote before. One important point made in Professor Ritchie’s post, Is Michigan a Third World Economy?, is the need for “strong political leadership” which is missing in both Detroit and the state of Michigan as a whole.

The one thing that I have found to be a constant in Detroit is the sense of community. From people who live in the city at large, the various enclaves and districts of the city, and the groups and organizations that work to make Detroit a better place. Unlike any other major city, this sense of community needs to be fostered and developed. The city needs to stop trying to bring in people from the suburbs and from outside the city. There needs to be a greater focus on the people who are already here. Living the struggles of Detroit and working to make the solutions.

Thankfully there are examples from initiatives in other struggling cities across the US to give direction as to how Detroit can begin to thrive again. The Governor and many experts have talked about innovative industries. Detroit and dense city centers like it can capitalize on the new “green” industry. But will “green” be enough to “save” Detroit? Hardly, and the third installment about Detroit will highlight solutions happening and the people who are pushing to make their communities better.