The Mayor Who's Determined to Bring Flint Back

Dayne Walling came back to his hometown intent on turning it around. Don't bet against him.
by | October 22, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

Here's a mayor, and a city, to watch. Dayne Walling came of age watching what his hometown of Flint, Mich., endured in the 1980s as the city, built around General Motors and the auto industry, lost jobs and residents due to a host of factors including deindustrialization, globalization, white flight and crime. The city lost about half of its population, from a peak of almost 200,000 in 1960 to about 100,000 today, while local GM employment fell from a high of 80,000 in 1978 to less than 8,000 by 2010. The 1989 Michael Moore film, "Roger & Me," documents Flint's decline and lays the blame mostly on General Motors CEO Roger Smith.

Walling is a very bright young guy who seems to have devoted his energy and talent almost entirely to preparing himself to lead Flint's recovery. If academic and practical training can lead to success, then the citizens of Flint seem to be in pretty good hands. After graduating with a degree in social relations from Michigan State University in 1996, he won a Rhodes Scholarship, which allowed him to get a second B.A., this time in modern history, from Oxford University and an M.A. in contemporary urban affairs from the University of London. Currently he is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in urban development at the University of Minnesota. His dissertation topic? "Prospects for Economic and Community Development in Midwest Cities."

Flint, Mich., Mayor Dayne Walling  
Flint Mayor Dayne Walling
But it's not just academic training that Walling brings to the game. He's also been able to see and participate in the work of dramatic economic turnaround for cities. During Washington, D.C.'s remarkable emergence from the governance mess it was in the mid-1990s to the thriving city it is today, Walling worked directly with two of the people associated with the city's success. In 1999 and 2000, he served as an analyst for Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi, and from 2000 to 2002 he worked in Mayor Anthony Williams' Office of Partnerships and Grants Development.

After leaving Washington in the early 2002, he and his wife were in Minneapolis, both working on doctorates. In addition, he was involved in a couple of urban-affairs programs as a staffer and a volunteer. But all the while he was in Minneapolis, he was watching things at home in Flint and not liking what he saw. He thought the mayor at the time was doing the wrong things for the 21st century, and he was looking to support someone who would challenge the mayor in the 2007 election.

He didn't see anyone stepping up, so in 2006 he and his young family moved back to Flint so that he could run for mayor. He narrowly lost to the incumbent in the 2007 election. He moved on to start his own management-consulting firm, but then, in August of 2009, the mayor resigned in the face of a recall. Seven candidates ran in the subsequent special election, and Walling won with 64 percent of the vote.

When he took office, Flint had just had its worst unemployment month in 25 years: 29 percent. In 2010, after laying off police and firefighters to cope with the financial crisis, Walling was himself the target of a recall effort. That attempt failed to get enough signatures to force an election. He ran for his first full term in 2011, and won with 56 percent of the vote. He didn't have to wait for the challenges to intensify. That very election day, the governor of Michigan declared Flint to be fiscally distressed and installed an emergency financial manager.

Walling sees his city's top challenges as the twin problems of unemployment and crime. Unemployment is now about half of what it was in 2009, at 15 percent, but still enormously high compared to the national average of 7.8 percent. And, for the last two years, Flint has had the highest rate of violent crime in the country. To some degree, these two issues go together and between them contribute to a host of other issues around blight and abandonment of residential property.

The mayor's strategy to address these problems is to develop a comprehensive long-term plan for the city so that each of the major players--the regional chamber of commerce, the schools, the transportation authority, the foundations and others--can see what each is doing, know and buy into their own roles in the plan, and understand that their individual efforts are being complemented by the work of other committed partners. Last year, the city won a $1.5 million grant from the Department of Housing Development's sustainable communities program to develop this comprehensive plan, and the city seems to be well along the planning-work timeline.

Big challenges are coming for all cities in America, but within those challenges are opportunities as well. Cities can be turned around--we've seen it done--but few have greater or more longstanding and fundamental problems than Flint's. And added to Mayor Walling's issues is the fact that his powers (not to mention his salary) are severely limited under the emergency status into which the state has placed the city.

Walling is not promising a quick fix--he says it will take at least 10 years to turn the city around. He's young, at 38, and he might be too optimistic, but I think we can learn a whole lot by watching him work on it. I wouldn't bet against him, or against Flint.