Detroit – Feast to Famine – it there a Lesson to Learn?


I have said before in this blog that my Dad’s family were born and raised in Detroit – not the suburbs, in the City, about a mile north of Tiger Stadium.  My great-grandfather was a butcher.  His sons all became butchers, so my Dad grew up around the butcher shop as a kid.  It was the Depression, but because of the shop, my Dad had food on his table.  My Great-grandmother managed the money, and acquired a number of properties in the area of 13th and Magnolia that the sons, and extended families would eventually move to.  It was a solution to the difficulties outside the shop.  Family was the means to survive the hard times of the Depression. 

Of course Detroit was a booming city – over 100 auto companies were in Detroit at the turn of the last century, and the City was becoming the center of a new mode of transportation – the automobile.  Henry Ford developed the assembly line to allow everyone to own a car, furthering the status of the City.  As the twenties developed, Detroit and Chicago competed to become the “jewel” of the Midwest.  Elaborate stone buildings, expanding infrastructure for roads, trains, water, sewer and storm water were all centerpieces of pride in the City.  Employment and incomes were high, worker benefits were good, the workforce was highly skilled and education was good. Profits were good and the auto industry was Detroit-centric. Detroit was a vibrant City in the first 50 years of the last century. 

Scroll ahead 60 years and how the city has fallen.  The City has lost a million people.  It has $18 billion in debt, and is collecting $0.3 billion less in revenues since 2008.  The tax base has been decimated.  Houses can be purchased for minimal prices.  Churches have been abandoned.  Crime is high.  Employment is down, unemployment remains above the state and national average.  Poverty is up, incomes are down.  Huge areas must be served but serve no one or only a very few.   The City filed the highest profile bankruptcy for a municipality ever.

The television show Low Down Sun last summer provided a graphic look at the City – blocks of the City devoid or mostly so of housing or other buildings, schools no longer in use, roads in disrepair, classic stone buildings with the windows broken out.  You can see what the City was, and the haunting view of the City today are a stark reality.  To add insult to injury, the Sun-Sentinel wrote a recent article about how people are making money doing tours of abandoned buildings in Detroit, or how farming is occurring in the City limits. 

So if Detroit failed, why not Cleveland, Akron, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cincinnati or virtually any other large, older Midwestern industrial city?  Sadly many of these cities have lost the industries that made them famous and provided jobs and a stable tax base and incomes.  Many of these cities are also stressed, much as we found Birmingham was.  There are many arguments for what precipitated these losses:  unions, shifts in population, outsourcing offshore, competition within the US, changes in consumer preferences, technology…… the list goes on.  But the reality is it doesn’t matter why, the City must deal with the reality that is.  We all look at Detroit and its recent bankruptcy filings.  Maybe looking at Detroit allows us to feel better about our situations, but we need to learn the lesson from Detroit, Birmingham, Cleveland and others who filed for bankruptcy.  We need to look back to determine where the decisions were that created the issues.  Was it expanding to fast, poor economic assumptions, failure to manage finances better, political failures, failure to raise revenues/taxes/water fees, or failure to maintain or replace infrastructure?  Rarely is it corruption, so it is people trying to do well but failing in their jobs.  The question is why? 

I would start with training.  We need to train our public managers better, but MPA and MBA schools are not teaching about these failures.  In part it may be because we tend to teach positive lessons, versus negative ones, but they would be useful case study of the potential challenges.  In a prior blog I noted that the biggest challenge for government managers is managing in lean times.  Often lean times can be overcome by saving money as fund balances and investing (well), but long-term downturns like Detroit, Cleveland and other cities have experienced cannot be corrected this way.  There are major policy implications that must be overcome. 

From a utility perspective it is important to note that the economic difficulties are not limited to cities and counties but utilities are subject to long-term declines as well.  The problem is particularly acute in industrial communities where a large industry (think mills in the mid-Atlantic states) move away and leave water and wastewater facilities at far less capacity than they were designed for. Small systems may be especially at risk.

As an industry we need to learn from these failures.  We should study the difficult times to determine how the problems can be avoided.  The need to figure out how to manage funds better, deal with customer losses, and define strategies to overcome losses.  If anyone has some thoughts, please respond to the blog, but doesn’t this sound like a research project in the making?

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