Dan Gilmartin is our guest blogger this week. He is the youngest executive director in the 108 year history of the Michigan Municipal League,
an organization that represents over 500 local governments throughout
Michigan. Dan previously served the League as deputy director and as
the organization’s lead advocate in Lansing and in Washington, where he
concentrated on a number of key issues including transportation, land
use and urban redevelopment.
The Michigan Municipal League is
spearheading efforts to revitalize Michigan’s communities through its
policy development, advocacy efforts and educational programs. It is
headquartered in Ann Arbor and maintains offices at the State Capitol
and in the U.P.
Photograph © Dave Krieger
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At the Michigan Municipal League we advocate for communities. If you
have been reading my earlier posts you know that we and many others are
sold on the fact that rebuilding Michigan’s economy begins with
rebuilding the cities that we call home.
Local governments police your streets and pick up your garbage. They
patch pot holes and maintain parks. Water and sewer, libraries, little
leagues, ice rinks… you name it, it’s your local government that
provides these services.
If you really care about communities in Michigan, I implore you to
get involved in advocacy efforts to help them out. Too often “local”
issues get short changed in the legislative process because something
sexier or more tangible comes along to replace them. As a result,
legislators often don’t hear from their constituents before big votes
that affect communities.This needs to change if we want to refocus our
efforts in Michigan.
There are a number of very important community issues that are
currently before elected legislative bodies in Lansing and Washington.
In Washington there is a continuation of the unending fight to return a
fair share of federal gas tax dollars back to Michigan for roads and
transit projects. In Lansing they are considering rewriting several
major tax codes and changing the structure of local government. It is
vital that people who feel that the “city” perspective is important in
the debate become motivated to advocate for change.
The disinvestment in Michigan’s communities, particularly our core
cities, has got to stop if we hope to compete successfully in the new
global jobs market. Providing resources and an atmosphere for success
is crucial if we are to succeed. So don’t reserve your calls and
e-mails to legislators for the “once in a hundred years” issue. Contact
them regularly and ask what they are doing to assist your hometown in
meeting the needs of its residents.
There are some really great things happening in Michigan’s
communities today, despite their uphill financial struggles. Their
power to make positive things happen comes from a synergy that is
unique to the cooperative spirit that occurs when groups of people work
together to improve the places that they call home. If you have some
spare time this summer, try venturing outside of your usual haunts to
check out what makes the communities around you distinctive and often
Have you been to Brighton lately? Or ever? If you go you will find a
downtown art exhibit that features almost 30 outdoor sculptures
sprinkled throughout the business district and along the public park
shore. Some are the products of local artists while others are from
nationally renowned sculptors. The whole event is the brainchild of
Kate Lawrence, who as Mayor of Brighton attended a League sponsored
event in Southwest Michigan in the city of Dowagiac and came away so
impressed with their public art program that she immediately went home
and formed the Mayor’s Commission on Art in Public Places. Once local
artist John Sauve came on as volunteer curator the idea took off in the
Another example of being surprised by what a community offers
occurred a few years back when the League was hosting an event at the
Renaissance Center for 700 local elected officials from across
Michigan. Rather than keep them holed up in meeting rooms all day, we
decided to put them on busses and show them around the city to see all
of the positive change taking place. They got tours of the prominent
spots like the DIA and the stadiums, but it was the unexpected
discoveries that created the lasting impressions (and changed
impressions too). We showed them some new loft developments in Midtown,
took them through the Inn on Ferry Street and showed off some hugely
successful brownfield projects that sprouted new, high-tech commercial
development and created hundreds of new jobs.
There are a number of other examples that I could use of communities
that have crafted unique cut-outs for themselves in the region. Often
times you just need to move past some outdated labels and find out for
yourself what a community has to offer—just like those small town
mayors who found progress in the big city or the art aficionados who
have added a town in Livingston County to their list of places to
There are a lot of interested eyes focused on the question of
regionalism in Michigan. All of the issues under the broad umbrella of
regionalism deserve our attention as we seek ways to reenergize our
state. If you’re interested in checking out some of the successful
collaborations in local government go to www.SEMCOG.org and click on the joint public services icon. You’ll be amazed at what is already taking place in and around the area.
There are a number of fine examples coming from the business sector
too, including the work currently being done by groups like Detroit
Renaissance in conjunction with local leaders. Detroit Renaissance has
undertaken a regional economic development benchmarking study for
Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. Part of the effort is to help
identify other regions around the world that metro Detroit could aspire
to emulate. Their researchers have concentrated efforts on big picture
regional strategies like developing the region’s creative capital,
improving the business environment for technology based companies and
investing in vital infrastructure.
I highlight this model not simply on its own merits, but because it
is an excellent example of what true regionalism could ultimately mean
for our state. Instead of pitting city vs. county or township vs.
village over who cuts the grass in medians, regional leaders need to
focus on making this a better place to live, learn and do business for
2007 and beyond.
Regionalism should be as much about vision and strategy as it is
about service delivery. Learning to leverage our collective resources
to improve quality of life is paramount to the region’s future. Linking
Detroit’s cultural center to Hamtramck’s ethnic community and
Northville’s Victorian downtown and Ann Arbor’s college town atmosphere
is all part of the fabric of a successful regional strategy. Others
have figured it out, so can we.
If I told you that there were 1,600 fewer cops on the streets in
Michigan today than on 9/11 would you be surprised? What about 2,400
less fire fighters? These statistics fly in the face of what people
see on TV and read on the web about the nation’s focus on homeland
security. But the fact of the matter in Michigan is that public safety
is largely a function of local government and the state has been
disinvesting in communities for well over a decade. Cities, in
particular, are showing real signs of distress.
I can tell you that from my talks with local officials that cutting
police and fire is the last thing that they consider when trying to
balance their budgets. So the massive layoffs are occurring only after
roads aren’t being resurfaced, libraries are closing and recreation
programs are being scaled back. And as I write this Blog the State
Legislature is considering additional cuts to communities to solve
their own self created state budget mess.
So if knowledge-based workers are looking for vibrant communities,
does it make sense for the state to continue to disinvest in the cities
that appeal to them? If we are really serious about turning our
economic ship around, we must reverse the trend of $2 billion in cuts
to community funding, repeated legislative attacks on local revenue
streams, and a lack of consensus on transportation strategies that has
resulted in millions of federal dollars being left on the table in D.C.
At a time when our future is tied to our ability to attract
knowledge-based workers and businesses, it’s reckless to continue to
cut the knees out from those who are charged with providing the
environment that they seek.
It’s not just Detroit that is hurting, either. Communities like
Livonia and Dearborn, long envied for their large tax base and
efficient service delivery, have joined the growing list of metro
Detroit communities who are cutting critical services. Their financial
troubles have less to do with the economy than they do with the
outdated system that they are required to work under.
Vibrant communities attract talented people. Talented people attract
knowledge-based businesses. Together they make for a strong economy and
a higher quality of life for everyone, but we can’t consistently
produce these types of places if the state continues to direct
For more information on the funding crisis, check out our award-winning video on YouTube.
I’m a city guy. Call it a curse, but I’m that guy who when he is out
of town rents a car or just wanders off on his own to check out the
small town neighborhoods and the big city downtowns. I’m looking for
clues as to how some places really come alive with energy, while others
just seem to survive. Is it the people? The culture? The
architecture? Having searched for awhile, one thing is abundantly
clear to me--our region has a lot of the right stuff in place to
thrive. It may need some polishing (OK, it really needs it), but much
of what makes a place significant is right here around us. How we move
it forward is up to us.
You have heard many of the arguments that attracting and retaining a
talented workforce in a region is a top priority when competing for new
economy jobs. Put me on the list of believers. The supporting data
from those regions that draw highly skilled, high paying jobs versus
those that don’t are just too obvious to ignore. Either you have the
talent, you attract the talent or high paying jobs are going somewhere
So how do we improve our talent base and improve our prospects of
incubating and attracting more knowledge-based businesses? One answer
that is often overlooked by the economic development “experts” is to
invest wisely in the communities where we live.
Place matters. Period.
A recent survey by CEO’s for Cities determined that two-thirds of
college educated 25-34 year olds decide where they want to live first
and then look for a job. It’s amazing how that statistic has changed
from a generation ago. They are highly mobile and they can often do
their work from just about anywhere, so they choose to live in areas
that provide walkable downtowns, non-traditional housing options,
access to mass transportation and lots of cultural amenities.
So why should they choose Detroit? Or Ann Arbor? Or Rochester? This
is a fundamental question that community leaders and residents of
Michigan should be asking themselves if they expect to successfully
compete in the global economy. And I believe that it is important to
point out that it’s a much different question than those that have
historically dominated discussions at city halls and local chambers of
commerce. A big part of the answer lies in our collective willingness,
or recent reluctance, as a state to invest in our own future.