Blog: Ric Geyer

In the winter of its economic downturn, the city of Detroit is doing an upriver crawl. Jump in with Ric Geyer, managing partner of 4731 Consulting (and long-distance swimmer), as he discusses Citizens for Cities, heroism, and his annual 14-miler across Lake St. Clair.

Post 1: We Are Not Alone

2010 arrives – along with the hope of a political and economic recovery in the City of Detroit.  

Politically, if the Bing administration's recent inauguration and the speeches that defined it are any indication, we are in for substantive change.  We are in the midst of a serious cash crunch and major modification is obviously required to change the course of history for this city.  To those people who cling to the notion that we can keep doing the same things the same ways, we ask, "So, how's it working so far?" 

Clearly, change is required, but just as clear is that when change occurs, there will be shifts – sometimes huge shifts – in the power base, in the status quo and in the processes that define them.  I believe we are in for shakeups in each of these areas, and I hope you'll do whatever you can to facilitate their success.  This is our time – and we are fortunate enough to have a new start – both in the administration and in the council.  It appears we have leaders on all sides who are willing to step up to the plate and be accountable.  It looks like the window of opportunity is open, and if the knowledgeable veterans (Cockrel, et al) buy in and support the new administration, we have a decent shot at a fresh new start.

On the economic front, and on a more somber note, it is clear that any sort of recovery in Detroit will lag the recovery in the rest of the nation by at least a number of months.  And the notion that we may never fully recover is not lost on economists and forecasters as well.  But equally important is the notion that we are not alone.  

At a recent Brookings Institute Conference sponsored by a non-profit community-based policy group called Greater Ohio, we heard that of the 21 largest "shrinking cities" in the US, 20 are located within 100 miles of the Great Lakes.  Our region has been decimated by changing buying patterns and by our stubborn adherence to business practices and social customs that are no longer relevant in today's society.  Our issues of race and right-to-work continue to dog us, and we have been duped by history – left behind by the very strategies that proved so successful in the early part of this century.   

An article that appeared in DBusiness some time ago talked about the $100 trillion that the automotive industry in the Detroit region has contributed to the U.S. economy.  Part of me wants to get the Senators in the Southern states that seem hell bent on destroying our way of life to at least admit that their attacks on us are unashamed acts of economic self-interest.  But the truth is, it just doesn't matter.  

"What have you done for me lately?" is just as true today as it ever was.  The only difference is that yesterday, our region was able to produce the results the nation wanted.  We were not only the arsenal of Democracy, but also the arsenal of consumption.  We satisfied one of the greatest needs of the American people – the need for freedom.  Our automobiles, and the personal mobility they provided, spawned a whole new culture.  

So, how do we become great again?  I think the first point is to ask the right question.  As Jay Williams, the Mayor of Youngstown says, "Youngstown will never be what it once was.  But rather then bemoaning the fact that we can never be what we once were, why don't we ask instead, "How do we become the best we can be?"  It is clear that Detroit will be different than it was before – it is extremely unlikely that in our lifetimes we will see the population in the city exceed 1 million people.  We need to realize that smaller can be better.  

More importantly, we need to ask what I characterize as the John Mogk question: "How do we take what we have and work with it in a smart, organized fashion to craft the best quality of life we can for the people of this region?"  It is not about giving up, or considering ourselves second class citizens – it is about realizing the assets and advantages we have and leveraging them to our combined advantage.  

It means not building thousands of new homes when every home we build sentences another one to an early death.  It means finding the areas of the greatest population density and supporting them, but it also means deemphasizing other areas that have already lost the majority of their populations.

We can no longer afford to support a city with the infrastructure and land mass that formerly supported 2 million people.  We need to move on and realize that we are still a great city, in spite of the population we have lost, but we cannot provide the kinds of services the people need on the backs of the people that stayed.  We are doing so much more now with so much less money – but it isn't enough.  We need to have less to do – and that means reducing services to areas where people no longer live, or painfully, to areas where only a few people remain.  Again, to return to Jay Williams and Youngstown, they have developed a strategy that says they will close areas down through attrition.  No one is ever forced to leave, but when areas do close up, services get just a little better and a little cheaper for everyone else.  

Which brings me back around to my original point.  We are not in this alone.  This is true of individuals living in Detroit, but it is also true of all our cities as well.  Cleveland, Lansing, Flint, Buffalo, Scranton - the list goes on.  But the picture is the same.  We are all losing population.  Maybe it's the weather – maybe it is the crumbling infrastructure, maybe it is our inability to realize that our diversity is actually one of our greatest untapped strengths, or maybe it is our stubborn reliance on the anachronistic idea that management and workers are separate entities that keeps us locked down. 

But whatever the reasons, Detroit is not alone.  There are a number of other cities out there that are standing next to us in this battle.  Those cities, and the people that live in them, are our urban brothers and sisters.  We need to work with them to bring us all back – because the answer lies in working together to solve the greater problems that we all face.