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East Meets West

Detroit’s Kilpatrick, Grand Rapids’ Heartwell partner for urban progress

November 12, 2004 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

John Corriveau/ECGR

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (center) and Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell (right) drew standing ovations at the Economic Club of Grand Rapids when they said they are teaming up to advance a new urban agenda.

GRAND RAPIDS — Vowing to speed Michigan’s transformation from a rustbelt rhinoceros into a galloping gazelle ready to run and win in the emerging global economy, the mayors of the state’s two largest cities announced they are partnering to push a four-point urban agenda to revive cities and attract more innovative businesses.

Appearing before more than 400 people at a Grand Rapids Economic Club luncheon on November 1, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell announced that, starting in January, they would co-chair the Urban Core Mayors, a coalition of the leaders of 13 of Michigan’s largest central cities. The two mayors said their primary goals are energizing their large base of constituents and advocating for local, state, and federal policies that boost investments in public transportation, improve inner city schools, increase 21st-century-style economic opportunities, and modernize the state’s antiquated tax code.

“The current system is failing,” Mayor Heartwell said. “We can’t grow our way back into prosperity without fundamental changes in how we operate. Our tax structures in Michigan simply do not work well for cities, they do not work well for schools, and they do not work well for business.”

Mayor Kilpatrick sounded a similar theme in his joint appearance with Mr. Heartwell.

“The economic pressures that are pushing on business are the same economic pressures that we are experiencing in the city,” Motown’s mayor said, citing a 32 percent rise in the City of Detroit’s employee health care costs. “If central cities like Grand Rapids and Detroit don’t work, Michigan doesn’t work.”

The mayors’ highly targeted agenda, detailed here for the first time, significantly sharpens the debate in Michigan about how to rejuvenate some the most dysfunctional core cities in the United States, according to urban authorities and economic development experts. The discussion has steadily gained traction in town halls and the state capitol for years, as awareness grows that vibrant metro areas are essential to Michigan’s ability to compete for talent and new investment in the global economy. Some observers believe the realization has united a critical mass of stakeholders.

Unity Overshadows Sharp Contrasts
But the complicated work of translating the debate into a modern urban strategy with specific policy actions that breathe new life into declining cities like Flint, Battle Creek, and Benton Harbor remains sluggish. The sheer length of the list of urban woes — everything from traffic gridlock to lead paint poisoning to unscrupulous moneylenders preying on aspiring homeowners — continues to diffuse the energy and focus that a substantive response demands. In Michigan’s 2002 gubernatorial race, for instance, candidate Jim Blanchard proposed a 50-point plan to heal cities.

Mayors Kilpatrick and Heartwell appear to be as different from each other as the sides of the state they each call home. Mr. Kilpatrick, from the East, is an African American gentleman, he stands a towering 6-foot-4, holds the title of America’s Hip Hop Mayor, and wears a diamond earring. The much smaller white gentlemen from the West is an ordained minister, a former insurance executive, and a grandfather.

Yet, in their speeches to the Grand Rapids business community, these sharply contrasting leaders narrowed that lengthy list of urban woes to four shared goals. Both mayors said they want the state Legislature to construct a more equitable tax policy, help struggling urban public schools, better finance high quality and convenient public transportation, and take more steps to fuel a knowledge-based economy. They said that they are united in building a coalition that will “transform Michigan” for success in the 21st century. And their passionate speeches drew a standing ovation here in the heart of the state’s conservative base.

“It’s important that the mayors of the state’s two largest cities lead the discussion about Michigan’s urban priorities,” observed state Representative Jerry Kooiman, a Republican from Grand Rapids. “This could really help to re-energize our urban caucus.”

Reviving a Legislative Caucus
Along with Senator Buzz Thomas, a Democrat from Detroit, Representative Kooiman will in January revive and co-chair the Michigan Legislature’s dormant Urban Legislative Caucus, a bipartisan and bicameral forum where lawmakers can identify and organize around key issues confronting the central cities.

In the wake of a busy election season, Mr. Kooiman said that it is unclear what specific areas the Urban Legislative Caucus will address next year. But he stated that a presentation by Mayor Kilpatrick and Mayor Heartwell in Lansing could help frame the priority issues for lawmakers and help set the tone for the caucus’s work.

“I’m committed to working closely with Buzz and the Democrats so we move forward in bipartisan fashion,” the representative said. “But there may be an opportunity to align the state caucus with the mayors’ agenda.”

Mayors Group Has a Legacy
Former Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie established the Urban Core Mayors in 1993 to identify common concerns in the state’s largest cities and support changes in state policy to solve the problems. Today, the group consists of thirteen cities: Saginaw, Bay City, Flint, Pontiac, Dearborn, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Jackson, Lansing, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, and Muskegon.

The Urban Core Mayors have helped establish several of Michigan’s most important and successful urban redevelopment tools. The group worked to revise the Michigan Environmental Protection Act and speed the redevelopment of abandoned inner-city properties; establish the state’s Renaissance Zone program, which provides targeted tax incentives for residents and businesses that locate in central cities; and establish the state’s brownfield program, which provides grants and loans to clean up polluted properties.

Together, these programs have leveraged tens of millions of dollars in reinvestment and created thousands of jobs in downtowns across the state. But state policy and public investments in Michigan still tend to favor sprawling development patterns in suburban and rural areas at the expense of a quality urban lifestyle.

Urban Movement
To reverse the decline of urban areas and boost competitiveness, various state leaders have proposed different programs and policy initiatives. In August 2003, for example, the bipartisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council recommended that Michigan revitalize its urban centers by expanding transportation options, directing state investments to established community centers, and establishing incentives to increase the supply of affordable housing for low wage workers.

The state’s Cool Cities program, initiated by Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat, is part of her seven-point plan to ensure Michigan strengthens its ability to lure top-flight executives and the talented workers they covet to urban areas.

Meanwhile, a Republican legislative package, called CORE, acknowledges urban concerns by introducing several proposals to improve Michigan’s older, larger cities.

Both mayors can point to recent progress within their own cities. According to Mayor Kilpatrick, more than 7,400 homes are currently under construction in Detroit, more than at any other time in the city’s modern history. The city is witnessing the investment of approximately $2 billion in public and private funds in riverfront redevelopment. More than $120 million worth of building projects currently are underway on three major downtown arteries.

“If you’ve been there lately, you’ve seen the cranes,” Mr. Kilpatrick said. “There is more construction going on in the city of Detroit now there has been in the past 50 years.”

Much the same is true in Grand Rapids, where private developers and government agencies have targeted more than $2 billion in investments to rebuild downtown Grand Rapids since 1990. The strategy clearly is working: Cultural diversity, tax revenues, household incomes, and inner city population are increasing markedly.

Real Steps Forward
Meanwhile, community support for new transportation options in the Grand Rapids region continues to grow. Voters in the past four years have passed two local tax increases to regionalize and expand bus service, and ridership has increased more than 60 percent in the past five years, “a rate unsurpassed in the country,” according to Mr. Heartwell. Now the bus system, known as The Rapid, is studying the potential for enhanced bus service, streetcars, and even light-rail service.

“Our transit system is now understood and acknowledged as a driver for economic development,” Mayor Heartwell said. “Just as schools must be equipped to train our children for the jobs of the new economy, so our transit system must provide the rides for the workers, the executives, and the shoppers. We must get people to and from work comfortably, affordably, and rapidly.”

But, he added, “the funding to accomplish our transit goals is constantly under attack. The demand is growing, but the funding is not. Here the Mayor of Detroit and I must put our shoulders together to ensure adequate state operating funding and federal capital support.”

Mayors Kilpatrick and Heartwell also called on the governor to establish a bipartisan commission to evaluate Michigan’s tax code and recommend improvements that support new-economy industries. They urged Lansing lawmakers to consider a forthcoming legislative proposal that would create what Mayor Heartwell called “educational renewal zones” and provide a new funding source for improving neighborhood schools. Finally, they said state lawmakers must aggressively identify and pursue newly emerging economic activities, such as the Life Sciences Corridor, that will attract new employers and opportunities to Michigan

“This is a real step forward,” said Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc., an Ann Arbor-based think tank. “It’s great that the two mayors are coming together and it sounds like the agenda they’ve laid out is really worth doing. Urban redevelopment is not at the top of the list in terms of state policy. And this emerging partnership should help move it up the list of priorities.”

Andy Guy, who is chronicling the rise of Grand Rapids as a center of Smart Growth innovation in the Midwest, directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Grand Rapids field office. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org, or 616-308-6250.

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