By Shea Howell
July 12, 2011
U.S. business interests are rediscovering Detroit and bringing with them a refreshing candor. The Wall Street Journal published one of the first honest accounts of the role of the Kresge Foundation in the reshaping of Detroit under the title “Revival Bid Pits Detroit vs. Donor.”
Local media have given little coverage of the role of the Kresge Foundation in the Detroit Works fiasco, and less to the role of its leader Rip Rapson.
The Wall Street Journal article sparked local attention because it concluded that Kresge was pulling support from both Detroit Works and the “M1” light rail transit line. The WSJ reported: “Both initiatives are now in limbo. Kresge stopped funding Detroit Works at the start of the year after disagreements with City Hall over the role of outside consultants. The foundation also is rethinking its support for the rail line amid a separate spat with city officials.”
Kresge quickly denied both claims. MLive reported that Kresge “has no plans to withdraw financial support for either the Detroit Works Project or Woodward Light Rail line. “There have certainly been frustrations in the relationship,” Judy McGovern, Kresge’s associate director of communications, said. “But it’s moving forward. We’re committed to this.”
This emphasis on project funding, however, missed the larger thrust of the WSJ article. It posed the question of the role of private dollars in public policy.
Calling the Kresge Foundation President the “new driver grabbing the wheel in the Motor City,” the article noted that Rapson is “not an elected official, or a local business titan. He’s not even a Detroiter.” It goes on to say “his combination of ambition, political connections and financial resources has made him a powerful force in the effort to remake a city much of the country wrote off a generation ago.”
The article points out that Mr.Rapson’s work in reshaping Minneapolis nearly two decades ago was well respected. However, it was not sufficient to win over the majority of voters in his home town. He failed in his one and only bid to become Mayor in 1993. Then he headed for the foundation world.
Now he has set his sights on Detroit. The journal article presents us with the question: by what right does someone who is not an elected official, who has no formal ties to the city and who has no accountability to any public processes become the person “grabbing the steering wheel,” effecting the lives and futures of an entire city?
Marja Winters, Detroit’s deputy planning chief explained to the Journal, “People want to know that their interests are being represented. Someone who doesn’t live here can’t accurately represent their interests.”
Most troubling is the recognition that Mr. Rapson does not seem to understand why his well financed planning process failed so completely. Instead of heading the words of city planning chief Carla Henderson, that it was a mistake for foundations and their paid consultants to not use more local talent, the journal reports: “Mr. Rapson blamed top Bing aides for bungling the town halls. He had wanted organizers to use more social media and other technology to mine Detroiters’ opinions.”
Further the Journal suggests Rapson believes, “ more outside voices are needed in Detroit to help local leaders who, he suggests, aren’t up to the challenge of remapping the city.”
The refusal of the Kresge leadership to look more critically at its own role in the Detroit Works mess does not bode well for their future role.
The reason the planning process failed was because it was an effort to manage and manipulate people whose ideas the foundations do not respect. The foundations have yet to understand that Detroiters have been actively engaged in re-imagining urban life, long before the foundations decided to “save us.”