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 2: Citizens for Cities

Citizens for Cities is an outgrowth of the Ten Living Cities Conference held August 8, 2009 in Dayton, Ohio.  Peter Benkendorf was a community activist living in Chicago who had an epiphany in front of a wine bar in Dayton last year and promptly moved down there, settling into the wonderful little St. Anne's Hill Historical District.

Benkendorf was upset about an article written in Forbes a year earlier which named Detroit and Flint in Michigan; Cleveland, Canton, Dayton, and Youngstown in Ohio; and Charleston, W.Va, Scranton, Pa., Springfield, Mass., and Buffalo, N.Y. "America’s Ten Fastest Dying Cities".  To demonstrate that these cities are not giving up, he organized a conference in Dayton to celebrate the positive steps each city was taking to move forward.

So, on August 8th, 2009, representatives from eight of the ten cities came to Dayton to address the audience, which included not only concerned Daytonians and other urbanists from the region, but also Josh Zumbrun, the original author of the article, as well as a reporter from The Wall Street Journal.

Josh, it turns out, is an articulate, apologetic Midwesterner who is both knowledgeable about the subject and concerned about the outcome.  The Wall Street Journal reporter, on the other hand, was upset that he had to "spend a day listening to a bunch of losers in Dayton".  The only saving grace is that after speaking to him for close to 30 minutes, he didn't include Detroit in his scathing report on the conference.  I can, however, attribute the following quote to him, explaining what his roommate had told him several years earlier after an internship at GM – "Detroit is where ideas go to die."  It colored everything else the guy knew of the city.

I was first up on Saturday morning, followed by a speaker from Canton, Ohio, and then Jay Williams, the Mayor of Youngstown.  In the audience were two people from Senator Sherrod Brown's office (D – Ohio). The presentations were all unique, with the exception that instead of being all "top down", there was a distinctly egalitarian feel to a number of the presentations, particularly that of Michael Gainer, founder of Buffalo ReUse.

Following the conference, Peter, Jay Williams, and I co-authored an article that appeared in In it we said, "Much like President Kennedy challenged Americans in 1961 to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade and America responded like never before, it is time for President Obama to challenge America to re-imagine the possibilities for our cities and the citizens who reside in them."

At about the same time, Peter and I were invited to attend a CEOs for Cities conference in Grand Rapids.  It was an excellent gathering - there were thinkers, academicians, practitioners, and energetic, young high tech entrepreneurs, who are had very profound things to say about how to grow our cities.  But we felt there was a group that was missing – the people in the cities.  The folks on the front lines – doing the work and getting results.  
The conversations that came out of the article and of the discussions that followed the conference in Grand Rapids provided the seed for Citizens for Cities. 

Our core belief is that there are a number of people and organizations in our cities that are already doing GREAT work, and could be doing even more if they were given a voice at the table.  These are individuals and organizations who are already achieving results – in situations that are difficult at best.  The mission will be to advocate for cities, to serve as an innovation catalyst, and to develop and deploy replicable processes that promote economic and civic revitalization.  But the key audience is the people who are currently on the ground, pounding out the projects and the successes that will eventually add up to the resurrection of our cities.   

Detroit's new administration uses the phrase, "Renewing the Spirit of Detroit".  We need to leverage this idea and apply it across the region so that we can all emerge stronger, if not smaller, in the coming decade.  

Who are these individuals and organizations I am talking about?  I can start with one of my current clients – the SHAR House over on the Boulevard.  It went from a nearly one million dollar deficit just over a year ago to an operating surplus today by taking a close, hard look at its finances. 

The same rigor that resulted in SHAR's financial turnaround is now being applied to an idea for an urban farm in the city called RecoveryPark.  It focuses on providing employment for people in its program and in the surrounding neighborhoods, but also on expanding the value chain down the line so that many more jobs can be generated.  The trick is not to just grow food, but to prepare it, package it, and distribute it to people who need it, all the while creating jobs and value throughout the city.   Perhaps more importantly, however, is the methodology that is bringing together dozens of organizations in a joint process to achieve a common goal.  That goal is the recovery of the city, and the effort has already been joined by a number of impressive organizations.
Next, Rebecca Salminen Witt over at the Greening of Detroit – who continues to push for progress in the city, or Keith Young, who teaches middle schoolers the finer points of advanced chemistry through EcoTek.  His kids have represented the U.S. several times in international conferences.  These are middle schoolers from the city of Detroit who are playing with DNA and inventing new ways to utilize biofuels.  These kids are the future of the country, and they are here because Keith has decided to invest in the hearts and minds of these kids.

Or how about the development work being done by some of the unsung heroes of Detroit, who toil incredibly long hours to make progress in this city.  Starting with the late, great Colin Hubbell, but also including people like Bob Slattery, Julio Bateau, and Sue Mosey, Kathy Wendler; each a giant in their own right.  Or Carolyn Mosher, from Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit, who recently passed, but whose spirit is still with us.  We need to help these people and the ones that follow them do what they do best – and thank them every day for their Herculean efforts to better the city.  I can only apologize that I can't mention all of the hundreds of other efficient, passionate non-profits who are changing the face of our city every day.

So, assuming we can find them, how do we empower them to increase their scale and accomplish even more?  We build a critical mass of these successful efforts, and leverage their talent and their results to make the results grow.  Working in the city, it has often felt like these groups spend a substantial amount of time fighting the bureaucracy that should be welcoming them with open arms. Imagine if that same municipal machine was in place to assist rather than hinder the efforts of these groups? 

Citizens for Cities is an admission by these groups that there is a problem.  We need to come together to reduce the barriers that confront us.  From the city standpoint, there needs to be a conscious and substantial movement to change the process and the mindset that erects these barriers.  We don't need more people inspecting dumpsters in the city – we need more people helping startup businesses navigate the bureaucratic path.
We are wasting time, talent and more importantly, money, trying to stop potentially successful efforts.  We need to get on the same page, find the talent that already exists and leverage it.   We will be officially launching Citizens for Cities in the new year.  If you are interested in getting involved, please write and let us know.