Entrepreneurship, risk-taking, innovation, thinking outside of the box. Isn’t that what American business does? Doesn’t Wall Street reward that? Isn’t that Silicon Valley?
Today’s auto industry is nimble and creative. It employs thousands of Michiganders including industrial engineers (31,330) and mechanical engineers (23,760) more than any other state, according to the Detroit Regional Chamber.
The auto bailout has been a win-win for everyone except the thousands of workers who never got their jobs back or who took 50% pay cuts. But the industry was on its knees. They needed creativity and dollars from the government. Industry leaders want fresh thinking in the public sector too. Michigan car buyers are a tiny percentage of their market share. They don’t want citizens and little government officials to keep thinking they need to protect the industry by blocking other forms of transportation. This state is still recovering from the poison that General Motors shot deep into us in 1939, as Chris Leinberger explains in his books and speeches. Leinberger built subdivisions on the east coast before he was a University of Michigan Real Estate Professor and fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. He shows the video of ‘Futurama’ the runaway hit exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair. (see video here)
GM convinced my grandparents it was good to get in the car to buy a quart of milk. It was healthy to put homes, stores, schools and factories far away from one another. How many of you are surprised when looking at your odomoter at the end of the day? You’ve driven 100 miles and you say “but I didn’t go anywhere.” Leinberger says “transportation drives development.” Your means of locomotion determines the value of your real estate. Surprised Northland Mall is going bust? That’s our reward for shopping there and skipping the original 1911 Hudson’s Department Store. Those acres of Southfield asphalt are worthless now. But if we had just kept the street car system that was torn up in 1956, and let it run within a few feet of Hudson’s and on up to Pontiac then that single city block would be worth tens of millions today, pumping money into company payrolls, family bank accounts and the city budget. No surprise that the Waterford Township supervisor wants to tear down the old Pontiac Mall too.
Michigan’s last batch of legislators didn’t have the guts to invest in the roads and a mere $110 million for public transit. Our Koch Brothers lawmakers will quote Ronald Reagan trying to “get big government off the backs of the people.” Reagan planted the seeds for the $7.7 trillion dollar bailouts. If you forgot that check back to Bloomberg News’ 2011 story.
Billions for roads? That’s free-enterprise. That’s not government using public money. A few hundred million for a mass transit system? That’s socialism? Why? Because it means I, who grew up at Maple and Cranbrook in Birmingham, would risk rubbing shoulders with black men from Highland Park as they step into the train and sit down next to me on the way downtown to the Penobscot Building, I to work as a lawyer, they to shine my shoes.
Innovation today comes from India, China and Nigeria. It comes in all colors. Little of it is white. I would also have to get used to guys sitting next to me whose curry and garlic come from their pores.
Pay for a real mass transit system and you’ll compete with cities around the world for top talent that creates new industries. What was Washington, D.C. in 1976 before it built its first subway line? A southern backwater. Now its a world-class cosmopolitian city. As author Dave Dempsey pointed out in his biography of Governor William Milliken, 1969-1982, Grand Rapids native Gerald Ford gave the Traverse City native Milliken $600 million for a Detroit subway system in 1976. But Mayor Coleman Young and Brooks Patterson kept building the wall higher at 8 Mile Road.
Coleman is dead. We can’t sweep him away. But Brooks is still in power. He’s an efficient administrator, intelligent and faithful to his constituents. He’s shrunk the pie of dollars for the metro area. Every household in Bloomfield and all those townships now has a son or daughter devoting their wealth and their children to improving New York City, San Francisco or Washington. They went there to rub shoulders with new people on subways. Like the manufacturing jobs: they’re not coming back. And it’s sad. Many of them aren’t republicans anymore either.
A couple developers with deep pockets, including Richard Baron, tried to show Mayor Dennis Archer their plans for Hudson’s. Before Archer pushed the plunger to detonate it he told the Free Press “everybody loves the old Hudson’s. I love it too. But you can’t stand in the way of progress.” I interviewed him in 2012. He said “there was nothing productive that was presented to me or presented to the city to do something at Hudson’s. So we decided that we would take it down to make the site available for business development.”
“That’s been 14 years,” I said, thinking he would feel ashamed that the site has been an empty lot ever since. “Do you have any regrets about that decision?” I asked. Archer raised the pitch and volume of his voice. “No I don’t have any regrets.” And our conversation was over.