Anyone who wishes can find plenty of evidence to reinforce the popular belief that Detroit remains a city in decline. This past summer, the city twice had to shut down its antiquated power system — affecting public offices, schools, libraries and Wayne State University — first because of a system overload, then to prevent another sudden outage. Abandoned housing and vacant lots continue to blight many neighborhoods, and estimates suggest that the city is continuing to lose population; the people who remain are, overwhelmingly, poor.
But if you compare the Detroit of today with the city of a decade ago, you realize that an enormous amount has changed. Downtown is being reborn, with old office buildings being turned into apartments and condos, General Motors’ world headquarters taking up the once-derided Renaissance Center, a new home being constructed for the business-software giant Compuware, crowds flocking to the new Detroit Tigers baseball stadium and a new football stadium in the works.
Then, of course, there are Detroit’s casinos: The MGM Grand and MotorCity, in temporary quarters until their permanent sites are finished in 2004, have given a decided boost to the city’s tax base, and a third casino is slated to open this month in Greektown. Around the city, for the first time in decades, there are significant numbers of new housing starts, most of them aimed at middle- and upper-income buyers.
And nobody is talking about Detroit city government as the basket case it once appeared to be. In the past six years, the city has received no fewer than nine upgrades from the bond-rating agencies, a sign not merely of rising economic fortunes but also of the faith in Mayor Dennis Archer, the man who has presided over — and to a large extent created — the city’s comeback. None of the improvement could have happened under the previous mayor, says David Littmann, chief economist for Detroit-based Comerica Bank. “You have to credit the administration not only with having a better attitude toward business, but with really relentless efforts to move businesses into the heart of Detroit,” Littmann argues. “That’s coming along swimmingly.”
Archer’s administration has not been perfect. Police and firefighters still complain of being understaffed and poorly equipped; a cumbersome bureaucracy greets entrepreneurs and developers trying to do business with the city; cash reserves are skimpy; and Detroit continues to have trouble with such basics as tracking capital projects and readying abandoned properties for sale. But these are workaday problems — not acute crises — and simply getting to that point is a considerable achievement: This was, after all, a city government that was still relying on rotary telephones and entering complex data on file cards when Archer took over in 1994.
Any list of Archer’s accomplishments has to begin with style. He is, in public, even-tempered, diplomatic and inclined toward collaboration, and the combination has, for the most part, disarmed the once-prickly attitude business and political leaders in metropolitan Detroit took toward the city.
But more fundamentally, Archer has reshaped the city government’s expectations of itself. He has created an ambitious and successful work-force training system where none existed, pushed his departments to modernize their information technology, made financial and budgetary information readily available both within city government and to Detroit’s citizens, and initiated a citywide strategic planning process. All of this, says Archer, is finally allowing him to focus on moving city government forward, not on digging it out of a hole that once seemed insurmountable. “Improving services to our citizens is our highest priority now,” he says. “We always have to be willing to make changes to improve city services.”
— Rob Gurwitt
Photos by Dwight Cendrowski