In last decade, metro Detroit communities take big steps to address regional problems

Debbie Schutt has seen plenty of missed opportunities in her 40-plus years as a community planner in metro Detroit.

"Being a planner during my era was, for a lot of reasons, very frustrating. Not investing in the maintenance of the infrastructure, continuing to build at the expense of maintaining the infrastructure -- it just wasn't a sustainable model."

But Schutt, who is retiring this year after a career that has spanned stints as executive director of the multi-jurisdictional Woodward Avenue Action Association, planning supervisor at Oakland County Planning & Economic Development Services and in private practice, says she's seen a change in recent years.

"I was part of the era that saw the downtowns empty out. Whether it was a small village or Royal Oak or Detroit," she says. "Now I'm witnessing them fill back up. It's like we've come to our senses."

Schutt points to 2004 as a pivotal year for regional cooperation.

Debbie Schutt"There were two nonprofits that spanned Woodward Avenue; the Woodward Heritage Organization in Wayne County and the Woodward Avenue Action Association in Oakland County," says Schutt. City-suburb squabbles, she says, had prevented the two organizations from cooperating in any meaningful way.

But in 2004, Federal Highway Administration funds became available for economic development programs along major road corridors with historic and scenic significance. The catch: to get the money, the two nonprofits had to cooperate. So they merged, becoming one unified Woodward Avenue Action Association (WA3) that stretches 27 miles from the foot of Woodward at Jefferson Avenue in Detroit all the way to the Loop in Pontiac.

"It took away the city/suburb, us/them [dynamic]," she says. "Everyone was focusing on the same issue. It took years, but the barriers started coming down."

In the years since the merger, the WA3 has served as an example of what's possible when local governments look beyond borders toward common goals, says Schutt. The nonprofit has helped set a regional vision for the entire Woodward corridor featuring historical markers, wayfinding, and complete streets.  

INFOGRAPHIC: Regionalism in metro Detroit 1850-2015, an abbreviated timeline

"We can work together to make things stronger," says Schutt. "Very few municipalities supply all needs for an individual, whether it's educational or work or shopping. We're a mobile society, and we're all in this together."

Getting beyond regional rancor

Metro Detroit has a long and storied history of intra-regional antagonism. We are very aware of our borders. Many have penned worthy treatises on the subject (see here, here, here and here). Suffice it to say that failures in leadership, racial divisiveness, and Michigan's home-rule form of government have conspired to create strong disincentives for playing nice across county and municipal lines, let alone across 8 Mile Road.

And that's been a major hindrance to the economic and social success of the region, according to Conan Smith, executive director of Metro Matters, a nonprofit advocating for regional cooperation. Formerly named the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, the organization was rebranded this year to recognize that solving regional problems requires more than just the action of suburban local governments, but also the city of Detroit, businesses, and institutions.

"The challenges that our cities face are regional, not local," says Smith. Conan Smith, executive director of Metro Matters

For example, when it comes to economic development, Smith says that a unified approach would prove more successful than what he sees as the parochial approach currently taken by governments across the region.

"There needs to be a stronger, more deliberate partnership between government economic development agencies," he says. "The Detroit Regional Chamber is a great leader, but they face a cultural, structural barrier. When we look globally at how regions are framing themselves for the rest of the world, I don't think just Oakland County as an attractant is going to be as successful and compelling as all of metro Detroit."

A regional renaissance: Major milestones 2008-2015

Since the economic crisis of 2008, many seeds of regional cooperation have been planted. As Detroit emerges from bankruptcy and the region recovers from the Great Recession, it remains to be seen how well they will grow. Here's a shortlist of some of the big moments in recent years where metro Detroit's communities have come together:

2008: The Detroit Zoo Millage - In 2008, voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb county approved a 10-year property tax millage to help support operations at the independent, nonprofit Detroit Zoo. The millage expires in 2017, and the Zoo is already looking to gauge support for renewal, according to the Detroit News.

2009: Cobo Center Authority - In 2009, the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority was formed to operate Cobo Convention and Exhibition Center, which hosts the Detroit International Auto Show and other major conferences and conventions, representing a major step toward regional cooperation. The facility is governed by a five-member board including representatives from the state of Michigan, the city of Detroit, and Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

2012: The Detroit Institute of Arts Millage - In 2012, voters in three counties approved a ten-year millage to fund the Detroit Institute of Arts following steep declines in funding from the state of Michigan and city of Detroit. In return, the DIA entered into service agreements with county arts authorities in Oakland, Wayne, and Macomb counties that includes free admission to the facility for all residents.

2012: Regional Transit Authority - In 2012, the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan was created by the Michigan Legislature. It is the first successful attempt to create a regional transit agency after 23 failed prior attempts since 1970. The RTA is governed by a 10-member board appointed by the county executives of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, the chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, and the mayor of Detroit.

2014: Great Lakes Water AuthorityA product of Detroit's bankruptcy, the Great Lakes Water Authority incorporated in 2014 as a mechanism to deal with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department's debt and to "operate, control and improve both the Water Supply and Sewage Disposal Systems owned by the City and presently operated by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department ('DWSD')," according to the Memorandum of Understanding. The members include the city of Detroit, Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties.  The authority will lease the DWSD for 40 years from the city and will become autonomous on Jan. 1, 2016, according to its website. It has no power to tax and must adhere to annual revenue -- not rate -- caps set forth in the MOU.

Toward common interest: race, class, and the city-suburb divide

In spite of the major regional milestones accomplished in the last decade, issues of race and class linger in the region and continue to hold it back, according to Dan Kinkead, director of initiatives at Detroit Future City, a nonprofit dedicated to implementing a 50-year strategic vision for the city of Detroit.

"We have to foster more productive and collaborative dialogue around the issue [of race] at municipal levels and at community levels," he says. "We are an outlier when it comes to the racial divide -- we are the most racially segregated major U.S. city, period. Racial, social, and economic isolation will only put us at an increasing disadvantage over time as we compete both nationally and globally."

Ponsella Hardaway is executive director of MOSES, a regional nonprofit advocating for social equity and justice. She also sees conversation about race as critical for forward momentum. To her, the issue as all about equal access to opportunity and jobs.

"How can we have a conversation about moving the region and making sure that everybody has access to jobs?" she asks. "That's the real problem. That's why there is a lot of racial tension."

Smith would like to see the region share the fruits of economic development across community borders -- something he knows will be a challenge in a region with such a strong history of parochialism.

"Metro Matters is helping to convene a conversation around regional revenue sharing," says Smith. "Our experience in 2008, 2009, and 2010 with the economic volatility that governments experienced should say, 'Hey, first and foremost, everybody in this region deserves a decent quality of life.'"

Smith points to tax-base sharing models that ensure a basic level of service for all municipalities, such as the Twin Cities' Fiscal Disparities Program. The 44-year-old program puts 40 percent of growth in commercial-industrial tax base in each municipality into a regional pool that is distributed among participating municipalities and school districts. For example, if a new corporate headquarters or manufacturing plant located in Minneapolis, 40 percent of the tax base increase created by that new enterprise is distributed to other taxing authorities in the region.

But just as affluent suburbs in the Twin CIties have challenged the program, Smith expects the idea to be a hard sell in metro Detroit's well-to-do 'burbs.

"I don't think we're there yet. We're still in the discussion phase. People need to understand that there is a problem that can be solved," he says.

Getting the suburbs and the city, the well-to-do and the economically challenged to understand their common interests is at the heart of the challenge, according to Smith.

Kathryn Dimond, community relations director at the DIAIt's something the new DIA, which became an independent nonprofit funded with regional tax dollars as part of Detroit's bankruptcy in 2014, is learning to embrace. DIA's community relations director Kathryn Dimond says the museum is learning as it goes what it means to be a truly regional institution, funded by and serving residents of three very different counties.

"It has been a transition," she says. "Understanding what being publicly funded means is new to us, and brings about a lot of challenges. At one time, we had a very limited number of patrons that donated art and large sums of money, but now we've got hundreds of thousands of patrons that donate small amounts of money. All of their voices are really important."

This story is a part of "10 Years of Change," a year-long series celebrating Issue Media Group's decade of publishing in Detroit. Read other stories in the series here. Support for "10 Years of Change" is provided by the Hudson Webber Foundation.

Nina Ignaczak is a metro Detroit-based writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter @ninaignaczak.

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