Think Local, Act Regional

Detroit is full of dividing lines. They range from the infamous 8 Mile Road to the serene Detroit River. But few people look at Dequindre Road as the border between regionalism and modern day feudalism.

Metro Detroit's communities have long struggled to work together for even the simplest of things. Think DDOT and SMART buses chasing each other down the region's avenues despite years of effort to combine the two agencies. It's gotten to the point where regionalism is considered more a novel idea than feasible concept. The communities around Dequindre between 8 and 13 mile roads serve as a microcosm of southeast Michigan's present and possible future.

To the west of Dequindre to the Southfield border is Metro Detroit today – a mishmash of 10 municipalities clustered around the Woodward corridor. Governing the 192,000 people in approximately 38 square miles are 10 different local governments, nine city councils, planning commissions and recreation departments, eight libraries, six police departments, five fire departments and three public safety departments.

Flip that same block of land to the east side of Dequindre and there is an example of what local government in Metro Detroit can become – Warren.

Not exactly what you were expecting to hear was it?

Especially in a world where the Royal Oaks and Ferndales are held up as gleaming examples of progressive thinking. But Warren, and the small city of Centerline it surrounds, govern 36 square miles and 145,000 people with two city councils, planning commissions, recreation departments and libraries, along with a public safety department, a fire department and a police department. As much as some of the hoity-toity to the west might cringe at the idea, Warren serves as a prime example of just how much more efficiently Metro Detroit can govern itself.

Which begs the question, is all of this government necessary, especially at a time when municipal budgets are stretched to the breaking point? What's the difference between Bloomfield, West Bloomfield and Bloomfield Hills? Do we really need five different Grosse Pointes and a Harper Woods (Grosse Pointe Heights, natch) thrown in for good measure?

"Is that practical going forward?" says John Bebow, executive director of The Center for Michigan, an Ann Arbor-based, think-and-do tank. "Do we need a Farmington and a Farmington Hills? Maybe we need them in name only but are there other ways they can share resources? The goal is not some square-jawed, highly efficient place where all of the trains run on time. The goal is livable communities that people want to thrive in. The question is can we make things more efficient so we can invest the savings back into the community?"

Hope UP in Iron River

Preaching regionalism's attributes and practicing them are often two different things.

Metro Detroit's leaders have been trying to work together for decades with varying levels of success. There are reassuring examples of new efforts, such as the One D coalition and the Aerotropolis initiative.

On the other hand there is a plethora of examples that aren't as encouraging, such as the fight over water and Livonia pulling out of SMART. Each demonstrates the durability of a good idea and how incredibly fragile it is at its onset. No where is this more evident than in Iron River. The tiny community near the Upper Peninsula's western edge is Michigan's only example of city consolidation.

Iron River, Stambaugh, and Mineral Hills – the communities that make up Iron River today – had every tangible reason to consolidate. The area's population had withered to 3,391 from about 13,000 in the heady 1950s when iron mining was king. School districts, police departments and fire departments had long ago consolidated or disbanded. So much of the tax base had left there weren't enough employees left at any one municipality to flush the fire hydrants. This economic desperation drove the communities to push for total consolidation; which almost didn't happen because of mail boxes.

"That was a pretty hot topic for a while. It sort of blew my socks off," says Lynn Harvey, a retired Michigan State University economics professor who served as a special liaison between municipalities during the consolidation.

Many of the residents who didn't have home mail service routinely went to the post office each morning to check their mail before heading over to the local diner to get coffee and chit chat. It had become a valued social event amongst locals. One they feared losing if they didn't have a reason to go to the post office.

"You're really messing with the sense of community that everyone has," Harvey says. "Everyone identifies with their community. Even though everyone knows each other, their communities still have their own identities."

That civic pride, which so often drives communities to become better places, is also the right bower in the euchre game of Michigan regionalism. It's what drives city officials to worry what municipal name is on the fire truck in the local Fourth of July parade before thinking about how best to fund fire protection.

"There is a significant chauvinism among local people about retaining the identity of their community," says Maxine Berman, director of special projects for Gov. Granholm and a leading advocate for regional cooperation. "That is a significant obstacle."

At the end of the day, it didn't stop the Iron River trio from consolidating, a six-year process. To make it happen they agreed to postpone home mail delivery for a few months and not lay off any local employees, amongst other compromises.Today there is one full-time city manager instead of three and a critical mass of public works employees to flush the city's fire hydrants.

"Services don't have to be given out along political boundaries," Harvey says. "Local officials have a hard time understanding that because local officials like being local officials."

Hope in southeast Michigan

Harvey says he's heard little discussion of consolidation in Metro Detroit. There are currently 130 communities in the tri-county area alone, which Berman points out is "a lot of replicated services."

But there is renewed hope in recent years. The state's tough economy is forcing public officials to consider sharing resources with neighboring municipalities.

"Money is going to drive this," Bebow says. "Because money is so tight local governments are going to find a ways to consolidate services to save money."

Steps that have largely flown under the radar, but there are those who are laying the foundation for greater regionalism. The Metroparks system has pooled resources and governed regionally with great success for years. Huntington Woods recently combined its 911 dispatch center with Berkley, which shares an animal control officer with Royal Oak. Several downriver communities are looking into forming a regional fire authority.

"There are multiple examples of this throughout Metro Detroit," Berman says. "There is a whole lot more collaboration going on than a lot of people think, but a whole lot less than there should be."

One of the biggest initiatives with the most promise is the aerotropolis concept. The idea comes from the recognition that people settle around transportation hubs, such as rivers, seaports, rail stations and most recently, highways. With the rise of the global economy, however, airports have become the new hub. Three times the population of Michigan pass through our airports each year. It only seems logical to target billions of dollars in investment to develop the regions that surround them.

"Regions that are doing well are looking at solving their problems as a region," says Melanie Piana, associate director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. "They work together on economic, education and transportation issues."

To drive home this point, the Alliance is promoting its Creating Collaborative Communities program as a way to share and manage public resources more effectively through sharing more services. In the end, that usually means more tax dollars put to better use.

There is no question that if Metro Detroit's leaders created a new local governing system from scratch, it would not look like we have today. Common consensus points to a system that favors a countywide government, not the mishmash of municipalities created decades ago around farming centers committed to defending against annexation.

However, breaking those imaginary lines is a monumental task given the entrenched psyches of local officials and residents. There is hope that the next generation will leave those old battle lines behind, but the real key lies in the realization that all of this replication stands in the way of economic prosperity. The hope remains that local business leaders will stand up and demand change in order to stay relevant in our quickly globalizing world.

"Collaborative communities are competitive communities. That is what the governor has always said," Berman says. "Any thing that we can do to conserve resources and money, especially in difficult economic times, while giving the best services possible, that is what we should be doing."

Jon Zemke is the editor of metromode's Development News and a Detroit-based freelance writer. His previous feature for 'mode was Parking 2.0.


8 Mile sign

Downtown Ferndale

"Iron Jack" in Iron Mountain, Michigan

Downtown Iron Mountain

The Warren City Hall and Libray complex is an example of consolidation of services in one new building

The Grosse Pointes recently consolidated their library system

Photographs by Dave Krieger - All Rights Reserved

Dave Krieger is managing photographer of Model D and a major metromode contributor
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