Thinking for Ourselves
By Shea Howell
February 28, 2015
Mayor Duggan showed the first sign of acknowledging the importance of a community benefits agreement. Speaking at the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Detroit Policy Conference, Duggan affirmed the heart of the proposal. Cities should have a right to expect benefits from companies taking public money.
While there are some efforts to ensure that companies engage in responsible, equitable development, the experience of most Detroiters shows the need for much stronger and consistent actions.
Marathon Oil expansion in Southwest Detroit is a good example of a bad deal. After a much-publicized battle, Marathon agreed to hire Detroiters in exchange for a $175 million tax break in 2007. The ultimate choices of the company were beyond outrageous. They hired 15 Detroiters. This gave them a total of 30 Detroiters in a workforce of 500.
Then we have the crude demands by the Ilitch organization for public money for a Red Wing Hockey stadium. In the midst of bankruptcy hearings, Ilitch pushed for public financing for 60% of the $450 million dollar project. They also insisted on keeping all concession revenue and parking fees.
What are the benefits to the city? The Ilitch organization claims the project will generate an additional 440 jobs when completed.
Mayor Duggan has made much of his efforts to guarantee 51% of these jobs will go to Detroiters. We hope this is not the kind of balance he is seeking. The public is giving $261.5 million in exchange for a promise of 221 new jobs.
This imbalance is why we need a strong Community Benefits Agreement. This is also why we need strong neighborhood oversight in the negotiation of such benefits.
It is never to the advantage of politicians to challenge economic powers. It is always to their advantage to make things sound better than they are. Saying 51% of all the jobs in the stadium deal will go to Detroiters sounds a lot better than saying in exchange for nearly $300 million Detroiters will get 221 (possible) jobs.
Is it sound public policy to give away more than one million dollars per minimum wage job? What exactly is the community getting in return for the use of public money?
These questions are what the Chamber of Commerce objects to considering. And they are why we need real community oversight.
They Mayor claims he wants to stop the “us vs. them” mindset. But the tensions between neighborhoods and development schemes are not a paranoid attitude. They are the result of bitter experiences.
Currently, the DDA captures all tax increases within the downtown, and by law, can only use those funds for downtown development. Currently, the benefits to the community of massive schemes like the hockey arena are miniscule. Currently, leaders in the development community are challenging even modest efforts to provide affordable housing. Currently, the Regional Chamber is pushing Lansing to limit democratic decision making at every level.
We need strong neighborhood oversight because it is at the neighborhood level where new ideas are created. It was neighbors coming together through the People’s Platform that suggested the Community Benefits Agreement in the first place. People living in Detroit have ideas about policies and practices that are rooted in values that will encourage a better quality of life for everyone. These ideas are expressed daily in countless efforts to have voices heard at city councils, in community meetings and through progressive organizations.
The real us vs. them mentality in the city is fostered by corporate powers who recycle tired ideas. New ways of doing things threatens them. Yet, this new thinking is emerging all around the city as neighbors struggle with building better lives. This is the energy any Mayor seeking real change needs to understand.