Michigan Suburbs Alliance Turns 10: A Q&A with Conan Smith

It's not easy for those of us operating outside local government, municipal administrations, and the like to really get a handle on an organization like the Millennial Mayors Congress. There are no big public events, no overtly visible projects, no in-your-face branding slogans to convey what the organization is all about.

So let's take the occasion of the alliance's 10th anniversary to chat with executive director Conan Smith, who's seen the organization through its toddler years and into the tweens, guiding it and its members through issues such as limiting sprawl, energy waste, and talent loss.

The just-turned-40 Smith, who is also a Washtenaw County commissioner (and has taken quite a bit of flak for living outside tri-county metro Detroit while representing its suburbs), has led the organization for eight of the last 10 years.

He reflected on the decade-old organization's past accomplishments and future challenges with Metromode, which happens to share many of his passions.

How was the 10-year anniversary celebrated? Can a wonky organization focused on policy talk throw a good party?
One thing we did was have a giant party, which was the best part of it. It was a celebration at the Detroit Zoo, which is sort of apropos because our mission is regional and intergovernmental cooperation and the zoo really is about the same thing. It's a piece of Detroit city property, but it's located in a suburb and visitors come from all over. It really is symbolic for us in so many ways.

We also had a kickoff to a series of events and conversations we are hoping to spark for the next year around how our cities are funded and financed. We've got so many communities now sitting on the edge of bankruptcy … Just look at the emergency financial manager agreement in the city of Detroit. While so many people are talking about takeover, nobody seems to be talking about the underlying financial structure.

Our goal is to use our 10th anniversary to continue our conversation with community leaders and legislators and create some change in the structure of municipal financing.

Anyone else doing this? Any other cities or states to look to when it comes to revamping the financial infrastructure of municipalities?
Not so much. Michigan is somewhat of a special case … In 1994 we adopted a financing structure. Proposal A was a way to bring funding equity to the school system … but one of the unforeseen consequences was how that policy related to the Headlee Amendment. Those two policies together are like a bad drug interaction. It pushes you down and pushes you down. Separately neither one is a bad policy, but together they create harm for cities.

That's been compounded by the economic crisis that's happened in Michigan and other states. In Michigan we had sort of a gentleman's agreement between city and state government. This goes back 60-80 years. Local governments gave up some of their taxing authority so the state could collect tax and share the revenue … Since then the legislature hasn't really held up their end of the bargain …Those are the two big policy issues.

What can you do about it?
The distinction for the Suburbs Alliance is that while we recognize those policies are a disservice we're not interested in taking up a fight … It's about having a conversation about breaking out of the existing finance system and rebuilding it from the ground up … and making it more modern for society.

When people ask what the Michigan Suburbs Alliance does, what's your answer?
Our role is, all around, convening a region. We get local governments to work together on regional problems. It's pretty fascinating because we are a process nonprofit, we're not a project nonprofit. We could work on any number of issues as long as that lives up to getting communities working together.

Where do you feel the alliance has moved the needle in 10 years?
I would say there four big areas of impact we've had as an organization.

One, the process of redevelopment instead of sprawl development. So, we created a process that we call Redevelopment Ready Communities and that program helped cities to analyze their development process and streamline it so they can be ready for development.

The state of Michigan just bought that program this year and will roll it out statewide. We are very proud of that. The same program received EPA recognition (for policies that preserve open space and reuse developed land). That alone is worth 10 years of work.

Another area where we've had a pretty significant impact is energy efficiency and renewable energy. It's the Southeast Michigan Regional Energy Office. It's a really boring, very governmental name.... We have 23 cities that collaborate on energy policy and programming. We've been able to bring about $15 million of energy efficiency investment to these cities.

The third one is talent attraction and retention. How to get cities to think about an approach from a policy and development standpoint. One is the Millennial Mayors Congress. What that group does is: a veteran official from the 22 participating cities, usually a mayor of the city, appoints a young professional from that city. Those 40-something people meet a couple times a year to talk about and create programs and projects that help attract and retain young talent in the region.

The members are now working on a regional asset map of all the assets that millennial folks find most compelling and interesting.

Right now we're collecting data, and the intention is to turn it into a publicly available map that's been crowd-sourced … Millennial Mayors has been around 3 years. Already an energy efficiency program got all the cities to set goals of reducing energy use by 15 percent … Apparently young people think being energy efficient is important.

Transportation is the fourth area: Really, how do we support transit throughout the metro region? … We're right in the middle of regional transit authority policy development. We sit on the governor's team that's putting together the authority legislation. We helped create a statewide coalition that advocates for regional mass transit, called trans4michigan.

With the city of Birmingham we wrote a grant to the [U.S.] Department of Transportation that is bringing $2 million to the Woodward corridor to reinvent how transit happens from the  Detroit River to Pontiac.

Could you project out the next 10 years, where you hope to be focusing, moving the needle?
I think transit stays high, Millennials stays high. The redevelopment will change. It will be how do we as a region support each other in sustainable development. It's a different conversation. Instead of cannibalizing each other for business and trying to win away residents from another community, we realize that we're all in this together and we could all do well if we support each other instead of work against each other.

Speaking of cooperation, you took a hit at the Mackinac Policy Conference, when L. Brooks Patterson questioned why a Washtenaw County resident wants to influence and participate in Detroit and metro Detroit concerns. Does this kind of talk hurt regional cooperation?
It's definitely hard because Washtenaw isn't as connected to the core of the metro Detroit region as a city like Ferndale or Bloomfield or Warren. That physical distance can be challenging. My social life isn't as tied to Detroit as it is to Ann Arbor, for example. It's definitely a challenge. From my perspective it doesn't diminish my passion for seeing Detroit become a strong, thriving city. I know there is a lot of evidence for that happening. But in some sense my distance from the nitty gritty -- the personal fights -- gives me a perspective that's important. It's definitely a pro and con thing.

And what Brooks' concern was was that Washtenaw doesn't have skin in the game. We haven't put money behind things like Cobo so why should we have a say? That's a logical attitude to face down. At the same time we are a partner, we are a neighbor, and Washtenaw does have a role in metro Dertoit. We all have opportunity by bringing Washtenaw in. If we're smart about how we connect the top-notch academics that Washtenaw has to metro Detroit, we can build a very strong economic powerhouse. We could be world players.

That will never happen if we don't connect the academic might and the economic might.

Kim North Shine is Metromode's Development News editor and a Grosse Pointe-based freelance writer.

All Photos by David Lewinski
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