Mike Gallagher, CMF Editorial Correspondent
When some people look at the City of Detroit they see decay, population loss and a struggling economy. Rodrick Miller sees excitement, opportunity and a fresh, clean palette upon which to paint a new future for the Motor City.
As the newly appointed president/CEO of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC), Miller is expected to put a positive spin on the city he is now charged with helping rebuild.
But the nationally acclaimed and respected municipal economic expert has built a reputation on being frank, honest and looking at a city’s entire picture – warts and all – and then finding new ways to move forward to success.
“When I first came here I was blown away,” admits Miller. “Detroit hadn’t adequately told the story that there are a lot of good things going on here to a broad enough audience. We tell it, but not to a big enough audience.
“I was impressed by the sophistication of the people I met and especially the commitment that the foundation community has shown to the City of Detroit region. I was blown away by the level of access here in the city. There is just a momentum, a palpable sense of progress, where everyone I met said we are moving forward and we’re doing things.”
Miller recently shared his ideas for moving Motown’s revitalization and resurgence forward – and the steps needed to take Detroit to new heights of financial, social and cultural success through a strategic economic development renaissance – at InFocus, a gathering of Detroit-area grantmakers dedicated to supporting the city, the region and the state and improving the lives of Michigan citizens.
The Council of Michigan Foundations hosted the InFocus event entitled: “Southeast Michigan: Economic Strategies That Work – What The Country Can Learn From Detroit”.
“I would argue that Detroit today has one of the biggest opportunities in the world. Why? There are a couple of things we have that no other place in the U.S. has for sure and arguably no other place in the world. We’ve got world-class infrastructure and we’ve got the opportunity to build with access as well with the developable land here in what I call the city of the future. So we can play where the puck is going to be in 30 years.
“Also, we can position our city through our land access and through thinking about how can we leverage Detroit’s history, Detroit’s story, as well as with smart planning, to be most responsive to the economy of the future,” adds Miller, who has only been in his new job for a few months.
“It’s an exciting time in Detroit as we are coming out of bankruptcy and we’ve got a fresh slate. But there are two sides to that story. One is it’s very exciting. But there are not many ways you can do the math when you have a city of about 700,000 people with 58% of the kids in poverty, 38% of adults in poverty and 27% unemployment. It’s going to be very difficult to make the numbers pencil to support the city in the long term.”
That challenge is one Miller says he relishes, much like those undertaken at his previous job as the founding president/CEO of the New Orleans Business Alliance, the official economic development organization responsible for ensuring the long-term economic vitality and driving job growth for the City of New Orleans.
“We have to figure out how to leverage land and how to leverage people. How do we make sure that Detroiters have the skill sets necessary to compete in the next-generation economy? And how do we attract more people to the market?
“Overall, there is an excitement about Detroit. Bankruptcy is ending; there’s excitement about the (city’s) turnaround; and there’s lots of development going on. However, we’ve also noticed that Detroit is moving, but towards what? What’s the three-to-five year plan? That has to be developed.”
“There’s also an ‘us versus them’ mentality in the region. There’s a huge gap between the haves and have nots. And while everyone is excited, no one is telling the same story,” notes Miller.
“Additionally, while we are looking at a lot of investment going on now in Detroit, that’s great, but these are not market-driven investments.
“What we have are largely investments that are incentivized with public dollars and in many cases with foundation dollars,” says Miller. “Often times property is being bought at a fraction of its value. That’s not a true and complete economic recovery.
“I think where we should move is toward a real market-driven recovery. Long term we want a recovery where companies are saying ‘We have to be in Detroit! We can make more money in Detroit. There is more of a talent base in Detroit. There is more access to logistic supply chains in Detroit.’”
Miller also acknowledges the role Michigan foundations have played - and are playing – in the economic rebuilding of Detroit and its environs.
“When we look at the amount of investments that have happened over the last few years – I’m going to repeat this over and over because I believe so much is owed to the foundation community - I don’t think nationally people realize what would have happened to Detroit if the foundation community hadn’t been as strong as it is. They are owed a tremendous amount of thanks and gratitude!”
Developing an economic development plan for the Motor City will take discussions, compromises and buy-in from many sectors, predicts Miller.
“Right now if I talk to 10 different city business leaders I get 30 different answers about where the economy is going to be in five years. So how can we really drive progress toward something finite and real if there is not a real, agreed-upon plan for the economy?”
Also, engendering support around the state for Detroit’s resurgence is another hurdle that must be overcome, he adds. “I can tell you there are people around the country rooting harder for a Detroit turn-around than there are from some people from around the state. That’s concerning to me.”
The DEGC is well equipped and positioned to take on all these challenges, says Miller.
“DEGC is one of the few organizations that has real teeth. There is a financing ability. There are loans. There is bonding. There is property that can be owned. There is land assembly. Most economic organizations don’t have that kind of muscle.”
Critical next steps?
“I call these the ‘five P’s to success.’ One, you need a plan. If you don’t know where you’re going how do you get there? Two, there has to be partnerships with the public, private and nonprofit sectors, between regions of the state and different parts of the country. Three, we have to have a people-driven approach. Four, we have to publish and post. We have to tell our story. There is no shame in the Detroit story. The reality is all of Detroit’s story is what makes it a fascinating place that it is today. And five, we have to regrow the population base. These are our steps to success.”
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