Community Benefits By Shea Howell

Thinking for Ourselves
Community Benefits
By Shea Howell

shea25Detroit City Council should pass a strong community benefit agreement. The new ordinance, proposed by City Council President Brenda Jones deserves the support of everyone who cares about justice. Unless conscious efforts are made to direct development projects within our city, only a small, white and wealthy group will benefit.

Ultimately ignoring sensible policies in the name of protecting some mythical notion of free enterprise threatens the safety, security and well being of all of us.

Last week, at the opening session of the Detroit Economic Club, two of Governor Snyder’s men demonstrated how little they understand the importance of community benefits. More importantly they revealed the deep-seated racism that surrounds the almost hysterical opposition to this initiative.

Michael Finney, the senior advisor for Govern Snyder and Rodrick Miller, president and CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation gave the basis of their opposition to an initiative that would compel businesses receiving public funds to negotiate specific benefits to communities in exchange for tax breaks or other public support.

Mr. Finney called negotiated agreements “entitlements.” He argued that we look for other ways to generate development in neighborhoods, saying, “We need to be capitalists” and “Entitlements hurt us.”

This kind of ideological foolishness flies in the face of reality. What on earth makes Mr. Finney label a requirement to hire a certain percentage of skilled workers from the city an “entitlement?” To many people, the real entitlements are the almost constant demands by businesses for tax breaks and public money for their projects. Why is giving millions of dollars of public money to a private developer for an arena, unbridled capitalism, while a community negotiated settlement for a corporate sponsored playground a fetter on this development?

Such foolish argumentation can only be treated seriously if it is delivered to an audience like that in the Detroit Economic Club that already shares deeply rooted racialized myths about our city. Chief among these myths is that any effort to infuse development with principles of justice is some kind of entitlement.

Mr. Miller, acknowledged that one of the major questions in front of all of us is “How do we expand the economic pie and economic opportunity in the city of Detroit?” He does not offer any answers. Instead he invokes fears of “bureaucracy” and the problem of requiring developers to deal with “autonomous groups not responsible to anybody.”  The concern for accountability from Mr. Miller and the DEGC is welcome. Perhaps he would consider opening his meetings to public oversight.

In fact community benefit agreements would establish a clear and well-tested process to strengthen neighborhood development. They provide a way to hold developers and community groups accountable in public, legally binding ways to commitments that honor the use of public funds.

The Michigan Black Chamber of commerce, representing thousands of neighborhood businesses in Detroit supports a community benefit agreement. Its president, Kenneth Harris, said that this agreement would encourage developers to look toward local businesses. Kathleen Wendler, president of the Southwest Detroit Business Association, has also voiced support for the ordinance.

Governor Snyder, Mr. Finney and Mr. Miller should take a look at a recent column by Nolan Finley. No one would think Finley a friend of bureaucracy. Certainly no one would consider him a friend of entitlements, or having much concern for the people of Detroit. Yet recently he noted the stark reality of the growing racial divide in our city.  Talking about the feelings by many African Americans that  ‘they were being ignored in their own city, pushed out, not welcome.” Finley concludes, “The worst thing we can do is pretend this new strain of segregation in Detroit is not something we should think about.”

Actually, it is time to do more than think. Pass a community benefit agreements that will require actions.

The People’s Platform is requesting people call their council representatives to encourage passage of the ordinance. They also request people call Governor Snyder and demand an apology from his appointee Michael Finney.