5 Tough Questions for Conan Smith of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance

It’s a new day in Metro Detroit. With the region’s core city emerging from bankruptcy, a new era of cooperation, regionalism and smart growth is set to begin.

Or is it? The New Yorker’s profile on Oakland County Administrator L. Brooks Patterson titled, “Drop Dead, Detroit!”  ran just one year ago. And even as Detroit emerges from bankruptcy, several of its suburbs now stand on the brink of it. We spoke with Michigan Suburbs Alliance* Executive Director Conan Smith about the biggest challenges, opportunities and big plans happening for the metro region now. 

What's the biggest challenge the suburbs are facing now? 

I think one of the most impactful and least talked about is the change in our economic demographics within our cities. We're seeing the kind of poverty that's been traditionally associated with inner cities spread out across the metropolitan area, so that's creating fiscal challenges for communities, but also, it's creating tensions with social interface.

You have communities that have previously been strong middle class or wealthy having to grapple with a population that needs more services and comes from a different culture. The city of Detroit is dealing with the same sort of things from the reverse angle in some of its communities with gentrification. 

Personally, I think [diversification is] always a positive. We've become very insular over the last several decades, and we've forgotten how interdependent we truly are, not just as communities but as people. If you look across the United States, those communities that are diversifying, both racially and economically, are the ones that are thriving. For me, it's a positive. How we handle it, often isn't very positive.  

Two years ago you mentioned to Metromode that changing the structure of municipal financing was a top priority for you. What progress have you made on that front? 

We've had backwards progress. What the state of Michigan has done has actually constrained the ability of local governments to raise money even more than they had previously. In the meantime, their costs continue to increase, so you see more and more communities pushed by our system to the cusp of, or in the case of Detroit, over the edge of bankruptcy…and it's no individual community's fault. It's the fault of the structure that we have in place, and the legislature hasn't done anything to improve it.  

[We need to revisit] the interaction between Proposal A and Headlee at the state level. Those two laws conspire to decrease municipal revenue even in times of growth. It's a serious challenge to cities.

There are number of things we can do regionally, from a metropolitan perspective. Shared services, for example, across borders, to reduce some of the costs of those services, but most of those solutions are fairly limited in their scope and impact. 

There are a few big ideas that I think are feasible and would have dramatic impact. For example, really reexamining the levels at which we deliver all services. There are services that I would argue should not be delivered by a small, local unit of government. They are, by their nature, multi-jurisdictional and should be moved up to the county or some metropolitan-scale governing structure. A great example is public transportation. We created a regional transposition authority knowing this is service that crosses borders and needs to cross borders. I hope that we'll do and see more of that activity. 

Regional cooperation is cited as a potential answer for many of Metro Detroit’s issues, but historically it’s not something that has come naturally to the region. Does Metro Detroit want regionalism and cooperation? 

There are two different issues here. The communities around here get cooperation and the benefits of it. We have an incredibly high degree of cross-border cooperation compared to other metropolitan areas. Cities are sharing police services and garbage services or snow plow service — there is a lot of that going on. 

However, I don't feel like the region has quite embraced the idea of regionalism. Acting and behaving like a region or a truly thriving metropolitan area? We still have a long way to go in that regard. 

When communities that are equally empowered to deliver a certain kind of service look to share that service across their municipal boundaries, a number of issues arise in making the decision of what community you're going to partner with [including geography, fiscal capacity, history and and cultural affinity, and feasibility.] And suddenly, you've narrowed the scope of communities that are willing to cooperate with each other to a small handful. 

That poses the argument for metropolitan-scale governance, where we could take those filters out the decision-making process. This is where the state could play a powerful role. There are some services that are naturally multi-jurisdictional in their scale. We need a form of government or a form of governance that would allow us to deliver those services without having to go through the rigamarole of that filtering process. 

Do you find that some of those high profile statements we so often see coming from the head of Oakland County really matter then? Does that have a real negative impact?

Yeah, it does. He's a grand paradox. He gets out in the public eye in some very bombastic ways, and he's not afraid of poking fun of people, he’s not afraid of saying bold things that can be negatively construed or are just, frankly, negative. And yet when you bring him a practical project, he may push back hard, but it’s with an analytical mind, we frequently see good things come out of it. 

The attitude that people project about a lack of collaboration, whether it’s Brooks or others, definitely is not helpful. It's an impediment to our long-term ability to collaborate and see ourselves as one region. That kind of dialogue isn't getting us down the path toward prosperity at all. I would love to see us thinking and speaking and acting more as one common community. 

I know it's easy to point the finger at Oakland County and Brooks Patterson because he’s such a high-profile person. But he's not the only person, and Oakland County is by no means the only community that harbors those kinds of attitudes. It definitely needs to be confronted and combated. 

Do we have an issue with conflicting philosophies about how to grow? For example, SEMCOG okay'd a $4 billion in highway widening, even when Detroit and many transportation and planning people in the region opposed it. 

I would say it's difficult to say there there is a clash so much as there is a complete lack of shared strategy. So when issues like the 94/75 widening come up, you have communities that have developed independent economic development approaches and there is a parochialism that rules the day. Certain communities are helped by that widening and certain communities are hurt by that widening and you vote your self interest, rather than having a holistic approach to economic development that helps everybody.

So I don't think it's so much conflicting values as we have not had the best or right conversations about how to act as one region. 

I think some of the opportunities will be provided by the fiscal strengthening of the city of Detroit. The fact that our core city is on a good, solid footing will help transform a lot of the conversations about our region. And I think there is a lot of excitement about the city among senior leaders. 

*The Michigan Suburbs Alliance will soon change its name to Metro Matters to better represent the entire metropolitan region. Stay tuned to the organization's website for more details.

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, development news editor for Concentrate and IMG project editor.
All Photos by David Lewinski Photography

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