5 ideas for creating a shared regional vision for southeast Michigan

On Tuesday, Oct. 27, a group of metro Detroiters gathered in the basement auditorium of the Detroit Institute of Arts to hear a panel of experts discuss something that's long eluded the communities of southeast Michigan: how to create a shared regional vision that will help us attract and retain talent, jobs, and tax base in an increasingly competitive global landscape.

The discussion was the sixth and final event in Detroit Future City's "Ideas for Innovation" series, which the nonprofit hopes will reinforce the ideas laid out in its 50-year strategic framework for development in the city of Detroit.
An appropriate venue for a discussion on regionalism, the Detroit Institute of Arts is perhaps the best example of what can happen when metro Detroit works together toward a common purpose. "Welcome to your DIA," said Kathryn Diamond, the museum's community outreach director. "Since the 2012 tri-county millage [that now funds the DIA], this museum is quite literally your museum."
Following introductory remarks, the event's moderator, Jennifer White of Michigan Radio, invited the following panelists to the stage to make brief presentations: Hunter Morrison, director of Vibrant NEO, a regional plan for northeast Ohio; Michael Ford, CEO of the Regional Transit Authority for Southeast Michigan; John Austin, director of the Brookings Institution's Great Lakes Economic Initiative; and Ponsella Hardaway, executive director of Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength (MOSES).
Here are five takeaways from the event that metro Detroiters should consider as we work to build a shared vision to make our region more competitive.
1) Invest in older communities with existing infrastructure.
In developing Vibrant NEO, a regional vision for the 12 counties and four metro areas that make up northeast Ohio, Hunter Morrison and his colleagues discovered an odd statistic. Despite the fact that the region was only projected to gain only 93,300 residents by 2040, the region was also projected to build over 275,000 new houses. The math is simple – continuing such policies will inevitably result in the abandonment of homes in older, established communities like Cleveland, Youngstown, and Akron. The story is no different in metro Detroit. "We're abandoning not just houses, but entire neighborhoods that already have established infrastructure," said Morrison.
Yet Morrison and his team also found through surveys that people in the region overwhelmingly support funneling new investment into established communities, which is more efficient than building new communities and new infrastructure. Resolving this disconnect is one of the most important things that places like northeast Ohio and southeast Michigan can do to become more competitive with rapidly growing parts of the country.
2) Support the Regional Transit Authority millage at the ballot box in November 2016.
Can you point out a competitive metropolitan area without a comprehensive, regional public transportation system? It's a simple question with a simple answer – no.
After decades of missed opportunities and petty squabbles, Michigan's largest metro area finally has an authority to coordinate its fractured regional public transportation assets and build new ones. But having a coordinating transit agency isn't enough. Without funding, the nearly two-year-old Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan is impotent.
In November 2016, residents of southeast Michigan will have the opportunity to vote on a millage that would fund the RTA and put the region on a path to finally providing effective public transportation to its residents, connecting people with jobs and employers with employees. Will metro Detroiters step up and support the RTA like they did the DIA in 2012? We can only hope.
3) Think about competition between regions, not competition within them.
When municipalities poach of businesses from a neighbor within the same region, it is a zero-sum game. In truth, metro Detroit's communities are not in competition with each other for residents and companies, but rather with their analogues in other metro areas around the country and globe. The more jobs and amenities we have in southeast Michigan, whether they're in the city of Detroit, Southfield, Dearborn, or Mt. Clemens, the better chance we have at raising the prosperity level of the entire region. Moving jobs and amenities around within the region accomplishes nothing.
4) Flip the model of Jeffersonian democracy on its head.
The Jeffersonian ideals of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 have played a tremendous role in shaping our current landscape of numerous independent local governments throughout southeast Michigan. There's no doubt about it—Michigan's a home rule state. But while some of our communities pride themselves on their independent ability to provide high quality services to residents, others struggle to cover the costs of governing. Not all municipalities are created equal.
"We have the most balkanized communities in this [Great Lakes] region," said John Austin, director of the Great Lakes Economic Initiative, adding that our current approach to fixing the economic health of our most financially distressed communities like Pontiac and Detroit are not enough. "You can't emergency manage your way to rebuilding communities—you can balance a budget, but that's it. We need to regionalize the tax base, and that requires leadership."
Morrison added, "When you've got a home rule structure, you can either be bound by it or flip it on its head." By that he means we can use our sense of local pride to opt into regional initiatives. It's hard work, but it's possible.
5) Acknowledge the role race has played in fragmenting our region and move on…together.
The pattern of segregation that defines metro Detroit is no coincidence. If you don't believe it, pick up a copy of Thomas Sugrue's "Origins of the Urban Crisis." It's high time we acknowledge the role race has played in shaping the political, economic, and cultural fabric of our region.
"Regional equity pays attention to patterns responsible for challenges facing older and low-income communities," said Ponsella Hardaway, executive director of MOSES. "Extreme inequality effects the economic viability of the region." The first step to addressing those challenges, she says, is simply having honest conversations with one another.
Matthew Lewis is Metromode's managing editor. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjlew.
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