Our friend Detroit

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Windsor Star/Anne Jarvis

'I was thinking about you," a friend in Toronto told WindsorEssex Economic Development Corp. chief executive Sandra Pupatello after Detroit went bankrupt.

"How are you guys doing?" people asked her, reaching out to touch her arm.

Mayor Eddie Francis was working on an economic initiative with potential to benefit Windsor and Detroit when the question was asked: Will companies be able to attract the kind of employees they need to a bankrupt city? People thought Detroit had ceased to exist.

And they thought Windsor died with it.

"Guilt by association," Bill Anderson, director of the Cross-Border Transportation Centre at the University of Windsor, called it in a blog for the London School of Economics.

"I was really struck by the Toronto corporate world reaction to me, knowing I'm from Windsor, in the wake of the Detroit bankruptcy," Pupatello, Ontario's former minister of economic development and trade, told me. "The reaction was pretty clear. People see us and think, 'Oh no, really bad stuff is happening down there.'" "It doesn't just hurt us," Francis told me.

"It builds on that negative perception that was created when GM and Chrysler went through restructuring. Most people wrote off our region and most people haven't tuned back in."

So he and Pupatello are off to the Toronto Regional Board of Trade on Thursday to dispel the myths about Windsor - and Detroit. They'll also hit editorial board meetings at The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star. The same day, full-page ads will run in the Globe and The National Post, with links to videos about Windsor and Essex County on YouTube.

It will be the first time a mayor from southern Ontario has addressed the board of trade.

"Hopefully, they'll see a very aggressive full-court press," said Pupatello. "We need to be certain people actually know what's happening down here. They need to understand just how much we've come back."

The mayor will tell corporate heads and investors that Windsor is a very different city, that it has lowered commercial and industrial taxes and debt, that it is diversifying its economy, that it is a logistics and transportation hub.

It's also an affordable and more attractive place to live, he'll tell them.

And he'll pitch Detroit. The municipal government is bankrupt.

The city faces huge problems from a fleeing population to tens of thousands of vacant buildings to violent crime. But there are also, as Anderson calls them, "green shoots." In fact, in pockets of downtown, there is something of a renaissance not seen in years. "A Private Boom Amid Detroit's Public Blight" - The New York Times called it earlier this year.

Francis will tell them about the 150 new businesses that have opened in downtown Detroit in the last couple years, about the hundreds of millions of dollars being invested by the Ilitches, Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans and now Chinese company DDI Group, about corporations like Blue Cross Blue Shield moving their offices downtown, about vacant buildings being brought back to life, about gentrifying neighbourhoods, young people moving in, rent going up and vacancy going down, lineups at trendy new restaurants and bars, and the new Comerica Park and Ford Field.

Windsor shilling for Detroit, a major American city more than three times its size? You bet. Francis has never forgotten how his friend and former Chicago mayor Richard Daley explained it to him once.

"Chicago is great, right? It's got a lot going for it," he told Francis. "Imagine all the spinoff benefits the suburbs enjoy.

"You need Detroit to do well because if Detroit does well, you do well," he said.

Windsor is closer to Detroit than it is to any major Canadian city; we share a border. We are one economic region. Hundreds of trucks from Michigan deliver parts to the Chrysler minivan plant here, while engines from our Ford plant go to assembly plants there.

"We're in the middle of a production line," Francis said.

Despite the downturn, we still take in millions of dollars from American visitors.

Our nurses work in Detroit. Our university students study there. Our cardiac patients are rushed there.

We enjoy its skyline, its renowned art museum, zoo, four major league sports teams, malls and entertainment. We share the fireworks and Belle Island Grand Prix.

Detroit is a big sell for us - all the advantages of a major city from the friendliness, cleanliness and safety of a smaller one. Francis will tell Toronto he can get to a Tigers game in 10 minutes. People in the GTA can't get out of a crowded parking lot in 10 minutes.

We have family in Detroit. Detroit is part of life here.

Our image is crucial, says Francis. It helps determine if families move here, if companies invest here, if students come here to study. And Detroit is an integral part of our image.

People are demanding more livable, sustainable cities just as Detroit has a unique chance to reinvent itself. Will it be a smaller but better city, as Detroit Free Press writer John Gallagher hopes in his book Reimagining Detroit? Bankruptcy will deal only with the city's fiscal problems. Its transformation will be up to the people. And whatever materializes will affect us profoundly.