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Pushing for inclusive development along Woodward Avenue: Sommer Woods and M-1 Rail

Sommer Woods


This profile was originally published by Urban Innovation Exchange in partnership with Meeting of the Minds and Kresge Foundation. For more stories of people changing cities, visit UIXCities.com and follow @UIXCities.

What does a sports marketing and event manager know about transit?
 
Sommer Woods admits that when she first started out as director of external relations -- she's now VP of external relations and marketing -- for Detroit's M-1 Rail, she knew nothing about transit. But she knew people, and that's what really mattered.
 
Woods worked in sports marketing for several years, managing the PGA Tour Ford Senior Players Championship and filling the role of sponsor services director for the Super Bowl XL Host Committee when Detroit hosted the massive, catalytic event in 2006.
 
"I always wanted to be in urban planning and economic development, but I was a sports junky!" she laughs. But by working on the events side of things, she knew first-hand how major events can function as a significant economic and development stimulus.
 
Woods grew up in Detroit but left for college in 1995 and has since lived in Alabama, Houston, New Jersey, New York, and Atlanta. She only moved back in 2003 to manage the PGA Tour, and that was only because no one else wanted to move to Detroit to do it (Woods was selected since it was her hometown). She had every intention of leaving afterwards, but instead she decided to stick around to work for the Super Bowl. She was here to stay.
 
"The Super Bowl was a turning point for me. That for me was like, 'WOW,'" she says. "I grew up on the west side but never spent a lot of time downtown or Midtown. I went to festivals downtown but didn't really experience Detroit until I was working on the Super Bowl. Then I could see the energy. With special events like the Super Bowl, they are very pivotal, very catalytic in terms of development. That sparked a conversation about Detroit locally and nationally. At that point I sipped the Kool Aid! I wanted to be a part of the comeback and the fabric of this great city."
 
After that she worked with Mayor Dave Bing's administration as the film, culture, and special events director to oversee tax-incentivized filming – another source of economic development for the city – while also securing contracts with several major local events and organizations including the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix, the Parade Company, the Detroit Jazz Fest, and the NAACP.
 
By working with so many different organizations, Woods formed relationships with people in the city who worked in urban planning. Two and a half years ago, she was told about an opportunity they felt she was perfect for – one that was obviously a major transition and an atypical one in relation to urban planning, but she decided to check it out.
 
The opportunity that presented itself for her was no small one: the M-1 Rail project had been plagued by controversy and was the target of vicious media criticism for years preceding. While no one would argue that the city of Detroit needs a more comprehensive public transit system, the M-1 Rail project was initiated and led by private sector and philanthropic leaders, a public-private partnership of which Detroiters were instinctively skeptical. Also, though initial plans were more ambitious, the footprint was ultimately limited to the greater downtown area. Some Detroiters expressed concern that the project wasn't designed for the benefit of the entire community, seeing it as another example of institutionalized racial and socioeconomic inequity, from which Detroit has suffered enough. 

Woods had her work cut out for her.
 
Woods's background, however, was hardly incompatible with making this transition. At its core, the work she was doing was very community-driven. She worked in golf, which is not an industry that is popular with people of color or women, and she was very passionate about finding ways to translate the game to all different types of demographics. That practice simply carried over into her new career with the M-1 Rail.
 
She also did a lot of community work in the city and became familiar with how people in the city would react to developments that affected them. "One of my pet peeves with the city to this day is that a lot of times the city was so excited to get events and developments, but a lot of times we sell ourselves short. We don't set the expectation of who should be at the table. You just can't come in with a sense of arrogance and pity and do what the hell you want to do. That same sentiment has carried throughout M-1."
 
When she first came on board, M-1 had announced it wouldn't be extended to 8 Mile and it wouldn't be as expensive (or as comprehensive), running just a 3.3-mile stretch along the Woodward corridor. These announcements were not received lightly.  "Transportation here is a very interesting conversation. It sparks a lot of feelings and emotions – issues of race, segregation, classism – but a lot of times that has to come up in terms of transportation. It brings up things we don't want to talk about."
 
So the first thing Woods did was talk to people.
 
"I didn't have transit experience, but I had community engagement experience," she says. "Development can be so much more productive if there are more perspectives at the table: people of color, women, older people, younger people, white men. When you have all these people at the table you're guaranteed to have perspective instead of one monolithic project."
 
She created a councils comprised of different community representatives throughout Detroit, and not just the Woodward Corridor. The councils were designed to find out exactly what the people thought about the project and determine how M-1 needed to pursue it going forward.
 
"It made us better communicators and made us understand what the people really wanted," says Woods, though it took some convincing for the corporate stakeholders. She had to convince them, "It's okay to talk to the community. They're going to have thoughts on it. That's a reasonable perspective that we need for it to be a community project."
 
And it had to be a community project, and an inclusive one at that – for transit-dependent and choice riders alike. "If people are part of the process, they are part of the project."
 
Woods laughs, remembering her first months with M-1 putting together these community meetings. "Sometimes developers get nervous because they see a little butt-whooping at a community meeting, but the community has a right to feel this way because so often they aren't at the table."
 
Another area she tackled wasn't apparent until ground broke on the project. She pushed for people who were actually reflective of the community to be employed doing this work within the community. It may not seem like a big thing, but it's making a huge difference in the public's perception of the project.
 
"There are predominantly people of color working in the neighborhoods but no one of color was working on this project. It was not reflective of the community," she explains. "We wanted to be a catalyst not only in options for transit and what transit can be, but also how development can be, too: for people to see people working who look like themselves."
 
This meant both the laborers and the contractors employed on the project – an effort that was very intentional, and not necessarily easy.
 
Due to their smaller size, Detroit-based minority-owned businesses often don't have the opportunity to be a part of larger projects like M-1, so M-1 broke up the contracts to get those opportunities to those businesses. "It's very time-consuming and costs more money, but there was no way we could not make that investment. There was no way we could do this project and not be reflective of community."
 
The M-1 board was very committed with a 25 percent stretch goal for minority- and women-owned businesses – a high number in this region. They're at nearly 26 percent, and 40 percent of those working on the project are city residents. "We were very intentional and very creative. We rocked some boats. We had some conversations people didn't want to have – like, let's talk about systemic racism."
 
This intentionality has in turn made M-1 a model for future development in Detroit, and already other developers have asked them how they did it.
 
"When people see how development can be done, they see it's not as complicated as you all make it out to be! It's not a matter of checking off the 'African American' box or feeling good about being inclusive: you're going to get a better return on investment when your project is inclusive."
 
This impacts not only the development that is happening around transit and the investments being made along the Woodward Corridor – setting a precedent to appeal to all demographics, to be inclusive and reflective of the community, and to listen to what the community actually wants – but also creates a talent pipeline for other projects.
 
"When you see other infrastructure projects in Detroit you will see more diversity," says Woods. "When projects say, 'We would like to be diverse but we don't have a lot of people of color or women who have these skill sets,' well, okay, let's give them the skill sets. Working on M-1 will allow them to gain these skills for other projects."
 
Woods says she receives text messages from people saying that they saw a black man or a woman working as supervisors on the rail. "People in the community are observant of these things. People don't understand the true value of that, and quite honestly, that becomes a community project because they see it every day outside their window."
 
Construction on the M-1 Rail will be completed in 2016, and it will be operational in the first quarter of 2017. For Woods, success with this project means a healthy system that is safe, reliable, and clean, but it also means something more.
 
"When the Detroit Riverwalk was being built, there was controversy that it was not for the people; it was for General Motors. Now when you go out to the Riverwalk you see everybody. For me that is what we want to see in our system. Now people are talking about transit, they're involved in what it takes to expand transit, and hopefully that sparks a conversation about a regional transit authority. We're able to spark those conversations as well as conversations for people to really hold our government officials accountable. Then they see, 'Oh my God, this can really happen; this is what it is.' People can get on the system with their children and say, 'I helped build this system.' Kids will ride it, and it's like seeing your kids at a recital. That will be a successful project for me." 

Urban Innovation Exchange is presented in partnership with Meeting of the Minds and Kresge FoundationFor more stories of people changing cities, click here and follow @UIXCities.

Read more articles by Nicole Rupersburg.

Nicole Rupersburg is a former Detroiter now in Las Vegas who regularly writes about food, drink, and urban innovators. You can follow her on Instagram @eatsdrinksandleaves and Twitter @ruperstarski.
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