Southeast Michigan Sustainable Business Forums’ (SMSBF) Member-Guest event was held last week at Next Energy and it certainly provoked some good conversation and a better perspective of what’s in store from Maurice Cox, Director of Planning from Detroit’s Planning & Development Department. Members and guests had several opportunities to network, mingle, connect, discover and learn. Greetings were forthcoming from Mike Shesterkin, President of the Forum who spoke about the organizations’ history and recent refocusing on small business and entrepreneurs in the sustainable business space. Sponsor of the event was GHD and SMSBF Treasurer, Chris Meincke, who spoke of the recent merger with Conestoga-Rovers and Associates into the present day GHD. GHD, a global leading professional service company, is in several markets, including water, energy and resources, environment, property, buildings and transportation. They are focused on sustainable development and improving all of the communities in which they service.
WELCOMING A NEW AMBASSADOR TO THE CITY
Tim Westerman introduced Detroit’s new Director of Planning, Maurice Cox, who has been on the job barely 4 months. Not a lot of time considering Detroit is a city just coming out of bankruptcy, with thousands of vacant parcels, homes and buildings to be demolished and a department of just 6 planners. While it may seem like a prescription for disaster, Mr. Cox comes from a city that went through one of our country’s worst natural disasters, Katrina in New Orleans some 10 years ago. It is now a growing city and more vibrant than when it was pre-Katrina. While some predicted the demise of New Orleans following Katrina, the opposite occurred. Detroit does have its optimists who are also hoping Mr. Cox will have even greater success in the Motor City.
One of Mr. Coxs’ surprises is that Detroiters have been so burned throughout the years, they have very little or no positive expectations from city government. He appears willing to change that dynamic. What struck me from the start was how “genuine” Mr. Cox came off as a person. No grand scheme or agenda for the city… No cape or man on a white horse here to save the city. What the audience heard was a learned man who understands the wounds and open scars so many in the city are still suffering from. He’s come to the city because of the Future Cities’ Strategic Framework which he believes is the appropriate document to rely on moving forward. There is also a personal acknowledgment that Detroit may never reach 2 Million people again and a vibrant Detroit can be a city of its’ present population size. Mr. Cox also commented on how he prefers to use the term “resilient” and not sustainable, such that the people of Detroit are so resilient.
Mr. Cox believes the city owes a debt to those who remained in the city over the last 20 years and is willing to engage in social engineering experiments to determine how best to move forward and accomplish some form of equity for those who persevered. Mr. Cox acknowledged the “world is watching and pulling for Detroit”, so the timing is right and the window is open for Detroit to move forward. How long that window stays open is the question.\
“NOTHING WITHOUT US FOR US IS ABOUT US”
This old South African slogan are words by which Maurice Cox is applying in his daily job in moving the city forward. He’s been involved in enough planning and projects to realize that without local grassroots buy-in, the city cannot rebuild a resilient replacement of itself moving forward without giving people who stayed the course a return on their investment here in Detroit. How to make everyone in Detroit an investor in the recovery of the city is the great social experiment which has never been accomplished on this scale in the United States.
Mr. Cox revealed his experiences with Tulane City Center, where students, institutions and government were all involved in many small development projects with large positive social impacts. Whatever the community’s vision was on a particular project, they received technical assistance to achieve it and it helped the City of New Orleans heal and come back. It goes without saying that for Detroit to come back, it will need to marshal all of its resources, including institutions of higher learning, foundations and non-profit institutions along with city government.
Mr. Cox noted the city is blessed to have an administration that cares and that gets things done. Visions of the Duggan administration are to improve on quality of life issues for its citizens: functioning streetlights, faster EMS emergency response times, a blight free city, etc. The Duggan administration is chipping away at these issues and Mayor Duggan has an incredible ability to attract talent to the city to help resolve its thorniest issues. It’s been a long time since residents saw clear results of a city moving forward.
DETROIT STILL HAS BEAUTIFUL BONES
Maurice Cox spoke of how the elegance, grace, beauty and past significance is still evident in the old vacant beautiful architecture buildings still within the city. He commented it’s a testament to how incredibly resilient the city really is … All the old schools being a silent testament to what took place here over the last many generations.
Mr. Cox wants to take all old schools and repurpose them for community – it happened in New Orleans where so many buildings that were to be demolished were repurposed instead. That’s why he’s proud to report the boarding up of 40 schools so as to keep them from further deterioration.
Maurice Cox came here in the belief that Detroit’s past glory can be redefined into a new Detroit success story. He’s moving with the community to rally towards that successful vision. Who’s on board ?
While there’s so many reasons to feel positive about the direction of the city, it is not time to take the “foot off the accelerator” as we head into 2016. Detroit has taken the first few steps towards recovery, but it’s a very long, treacherous road to get back to any sense of normalcy for the city. Additionally, the entire region must continue to make strides to ensure a strong Detroit translates into a strong southeastern Michigan and a very strong state. Keep the gloves on, as there’s much more work to be done.
Reporting: Bob Mattler
ROBERT E. MATTLER is Managing Director for PACE-Equity in Michigan. He speaks, writes and reports about emerging green real estate and development issues in Michigan and elsewhere. Bob is a senior correspondent for www.greeningdetroit.com. For more information, contact Bob at PACE-Equity (248) 762-4370; or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.