Thinking for ourselves
City by Design
By Shea Howell
June 10-16, 2012
The Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual policy gathering of business, government, and media elites on Mackinac Island. Unlike years past, this year was free of most state legislators, kept in Lansing to meet the Governor’s budget deadline. No one seemed to really miss them.
The conference billed itself as not “Detroit-centric,” but there is little doubt that the energy at the gathering was the discussions of the “thriving business opportunities” in the city, and the need to get the “stumbling blocks” out of the way. The conference theme of “innovation, collaboration and the 21st Century global market” returned again and again to the potential of Detroit.
The main session on the city was called Detroit: Tale of Two Cities. The session was intended to follows “examine whether or not a thriving business community can overcome or help resolve a city’s long standing challenges.” The featured speaker was Anthony Williams, former Mayor or Washington D.C. and panelists were Red Elk Banks, of Whole Foods and Sandy Baruah, the president of the Detroit Regional Chamber. Stephen Henderson, Editorial Director of the Detroit Free Press was the moderator. Not listed on the program, and generally absent from discussion of Detroit, was former Mayor Dennis Archer who gave the over long introduction of Mayor Williams.
The session offered little to anyone actually thinking about the future of the city. But it did reveal yet again the striking lack of vision among the business elite. Mayor Williams seemed to sense this shallowness, as he actually seemed embarrassed by what he described as a rather large, undisclosed fee for his remarks. He had little to offer other than a few jokes and a readers digest version of Jim Collin’s work, From Good to Great. Williams said, “Start doing things with the best people,..make things happen…protect good people…hold people responsible for performance.” He elaborated on Collin’s Hedgehog idea, to have a central concept and follow it, no mater what. He also said he thought the argument around the consent agreement was a “distraction,” and we needed to focus on ”results.”
Sandy Baruah’s main comment, other than how glad he is to have a house in Washington D.C., was to say that business has finally “stopped hunting elephants” or thinking about the “silver bullet” that will fix everything. Instead, they are looking at all the small and medium steps they can take. Yet he had no real vision of how to encourage a vibrant, local, productive economy.
Only Red Elk Banks seemed to have any real understanding of the city and its strengths. Citing the strong local food culture, Banks said a major reason for coming to Detroit was the fact that Whole Foods recognized the “big interest in food. With the rise of urban agriculture, the Greening of Detroit, people interested in growing food, artisans like Avalon Bread and Traffic Jam Cheese, we see our customers.” Later he also commented that Whole Foods “will only be successful if the local and regional food economy is successful.” He indicated that they have dedicated 10 million dollars for a loan fund to help local, small businesses “scale up.”
Buried under the homilies about leadership Mayor Williams offered an important insight. He noted that D.C. was planned with the explicit intent of repudiating the monarchical model of European cities that were intended to show by design the power of the king and the order of the universe. Washington, by contrast, was to show the power of the newly emerging public realm.
We, in Detroit, are in the midst of creating a city that can show by design the values we hold for all our people. The discussions about how to do this are taking place every day throughout our neighborhoods. What is emerging is very different from what those on Mackinac Island think.