Detroit Regional City talk recapped

Whether they realize it or not, few topics matter more to Detroiters -- and metro Detroiters -- than regional thinking and planning that leads to cooperative action. The recent formation of a Regional Transit Authority -- 40 years in the making, by the way -- the Cobo Center expansion and a successful DIA millage effort are examples of how the region can, no must, begin to work together for the betterment of all of the 5.7 million people who live on both sides of the Detroit River.

The discussion began informally at the Detroit Institute of Arts' redesigned Kresge Court, before moving through the Romanesque gallery to the lecture hall.
Panelists waiting there were the DIA's Annmarie Erickson; Paul Hillegonds, Regional Transit Authority; Dan Kinkead, Detroit Future City; Dorian Moore, Archive DS; Kirk Mayes, Brightmoor Alliance and Global Detroit; and Katy Cockrel, Detroit Harmonie and Vote Detroit.

Moderator and Model D publisher Claire Nelson threw out the first pitch, saying "we came here not to have the same conversation" about regionalism. Indeed, we did not.

Paul Hillegonds, a former state rep, former president of Detroit Rennaisance and current vice president of community affairs for DTE, put the discussion into immediate perspective when he talked about what has changed since he moved to the region from West Michigan 16 years ago. 

"The (empty) Hudson's building represented the abandonment of the downtown, (and developing) a creative class seemed impossible," Hillegonds said. "But it's turned around in a relatively short period of time. Young people who celebrate diversity are coming to the same place their parents were vacating."

Hillegonds said there was no investment interest by the private sector during the late 1990s; nor were foundations much in the mix. "Now, there is significant private sector interest and a more unified foundation sector with national foundation interest."

Dan Kinkead of Detroit Future City said the key to city's future is not more population -- it's getting more people that are already here working. "If we could get twice the number of Detroiters employed that are employed today, that would be incredible," he said. "Right now, for every four people in Detroit we have one job. In other major American cities, with good bond ratings, the ratio is two people for one job."

Katy Cockrel, from Detroit Harmonie and Vote Detroit, picked up another thread -- that real change will not occur until people take on civic responsibility. "Nothing's going to happen if people moving into the Broderick Tower or the next major residential development are not contributing to the tax base, or registering to vote, affecting change." Cockrel added that the region is "cultually diverse but historically divided. We've had (this regional) conversation a million ways and nothing every comes of it."

Kirk Mayes of the Brightmoor Alliance and Global Detroit said the region was "in a post-industrial time. About 15-16 years ago the auto industry was the lifeblood of the economy. Hundreds of thousands of people relied on it. We have to stay connected to our past, building the future together."

Mayes said that working in Brightmoor, which connects to Oakland County via Grand River, he realizes people want the same things on each side of 8 Mile (or Telegraph to the west). "People want good schools, they want safe streets. I've learned that teams of people working together can do amazing things."

Dorian Moore, an architect who lives in Windsor but works in Detroit talked about rebuilding relationships between Detroit and Windsor through the arts, using regional diversity to its advantage, celebrating immigrant populations in both places. His overall message was about building regional connections.

"Throughout history, development of urban areas have been developed in linear patterns and guided by transit of some kind," Moore said. "Eventuially, downtown and Pontiac will be connected by light rail. Think of corridors as connectors. Thirteen communites are connected by 8 Mile; 11 communities are connected by Woodward."

Annmarie Erickson said she learned about the value of regional cooperation during the millage election last August that saw voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties approve $23 million over a 10-year period.

"I believe we are at a tipping point," Erickson said. "I've seen more 'renaissances' in my lifetime than I can count. But this time I sense something different. It's more driven at the grassroots level. We may be inching forward, but we're getting people to support (regional connections) with their dollars and that's a good thing."

The Model D speaker series receives support from the Michigan State Housing and Development Authority (MSHDA).
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.