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New Snyder Urban Office

Posted to on Wednesday, August 17, 2011

INTRO:  Governor Rick Snyder campaigned on revitalizing Michigan’s cities. This month, he announced his new Office of Urban Initiatives.  Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports on what the governor says he wants to do and what his report card is since taking office 8 months ago.

Many books have documented Detroit’s demise: there’s Detroit I Do Mind Dying, Detroit Divided, Who Failed Detroit? and The Origins of the Urban Crisis. The books describe white flight, shuttering businesses, tearing up the street car tracks and subsidizes for the suburbs. Some blame the state and federal government too. So what will Governor Snyder do?

“It’s not to run the city of Detroit. It’s how we partner well with the city of Detroit and really be that collaborative partner. And how do we take those ideas that are working well and here are the challenges and then understand how they impact every other part of Michigan so we can raise the results and have a positive progress for everyone.”

This month Snyder introduced his choice to run the new Office of Urban and Metropolitan Initiatives. It’s Wayne State University Vice-President, Harvey Hollins.

“An urban area is also a focal point for globalization and a critical center for economic growth. And as a result the lack of focus on our urban areas hurts all of us in Michigan. I’m glad our governor is not afraid of Detroit and believes in a strong Detroit and that a strong Detroit is a critical ingredient making a strong state.”

Even without the new office, Snyder has been on the job long enough to have a track record. Sue Mosey runs the University Cultural Center Association. She’s an urban planner who’s helped attract billions of dollars to the Wayne State area along Woodward and Cass Ave. Mosey has been working with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

“MEDC has gotten very involved in Detroit, certainly in this corridor. They’ve been extremely helpful in helping to facilitate financing for small business development.”

Mosey is known as the mayor of midtown. She’s saved dozens of old buildings that have netted new investment and residents. She says Governor Snyder’s new team likes what she’s doing.

“A lot of them are really excited about some of the projects that they’re seeing in midtown and understand that lots of people value history and architecture in a city like this. It’s part of the reason people are moving and attracted to midtown.”

Less than a mile south of midtown, lies the rubble of Cass Tech High school. A few days ago, bulldozers were pushing it around. John Rakolta’s company is overseeing the project. In January, Snyder named Rakolta to the executive committee of the MEDC.  A different man asked that his name not be used. He showed up to take pictures of the last wall standing.

“ I walked through it with a demolition contractor. I’m connected.”

Like most buildings 100 years ago, Cass Tech’s design and construction was European. It was 8 floors of brick, marble and wood.

“With the travels I’ve done, and I’ve been traveling in Europe for a dozen years now, I even wonder if they even have demolition contractors over there. Even the Bastides that are 1,500 years old are still there.”

The man is an ex-Detroiter who now lives in the Thumb. He says most people don’t care about history anymore. That’s why they tore down Cass Tech.

“It was functional. You could go in the auditorium and the original seats for the most were in excellent condition. A lot of the original paint was still there. Not only did it not need to come down it’s a sin to take this building down.  The European culture, the culture that built and went to this school would never have done this. But the culture that is in charge of making the decisions now…that’s the problem.”

Governors Granholm and Snyder both hired emergency financial managers for the Detroit Public Schools. They could have ordered them not to tear down Cass Tech and a dozen other buildings.

“There isn’t any real collaboration to look at the city as a wholistic approach.”

Ponsella Hardaway is a transit advocate. She’s disturbed by the 100 acres of empty land downtown stretching from Cass Tech to the Fox Theater. A lot  is owned by Mike Ilitch. In 2005, his company got part of the $8 million sent by Granholm to demolish buildings for the Super Bowl.

“So we get this. We get parking lots after parking lots to meet one person’s needs, to provide parking for his venue.”

Hardaway wishes the state and the city would force Ilitch to revitalize his parking lots and Matty Maroun to revitalize the old train station.

“I’m definitely against one person owning half of downtown Detroit. I think that’s just the wrong idea.”

What will the new urban affairs czar do? We’ll see when he takes office September 1. He’ll also set up shop in Grand Rapids and the Flint-Saginaw area.

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