Blog: Dan Gilmartin

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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Post No. 5

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. 

Post No. 4

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 wonderful places.     

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 community.  

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 visit. 

Post No. 3

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 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.

Post No. 2

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 resources elsewhere.

For more information on the funding crisis, check out our award-winning video on YouTube.

Post No. 1

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 else. 

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.

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