With Detroit in dire straits, mayor invites big thinking

"We've got to start putting the pieces together in ways that make sense," says Detroit Mayor Dave Bing.
"We've got to start putting the pieces together in ways that make sense," says Detroit Mayor Dave Bing. (Susan Tusa)
By Krissah Thompson
Tuesday, February 8, 2011

DETROIT - On a recent Tuesday afternoon, city hall was quiet and dim. The front desk was unattended. The receptionist, and most other city workers, had been furloughed again.

If he had wanted to, Mayor Dave Bing could have looked out his 11th-story window, at the Detroit River and the final vestiges of the boomtown he arrived in 44 years ago.

But his eyes were focused on the grim details of the city's Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. Page 25: The annual budget is in the hole by $155 million. Page 28: Long-term debt has climbed to $5.7 billion. Bing tapped the 237-page document with his index finger, number after daunting number.

"When I was elected, I thought I knew what was going on, but I got here and found out [that] in the short term, things were way worse than I ever imagined," Bing said. "Financially. Ethically. From a policy standpoint. We were on the brink of a financial calamity."

Twenty-one months into the job, that's where the city remains. With no salvation in sight, Bing, 67, has embarked on a mission few in his position have ever had to take on: Dramatically shrinking a major American metropolis. To do so, Bing has issued an open invitation: Anyone with a proposal, plan, theory - a notion, even - is welcome to try to save his crumbling city.

Numerous outfits have responded, turning Detroit into the new New Orleans - a giant testing ground for urban planners and developers.

There is an urban farming proposal, which would turn over whole sections of the city to corporate farming operations. Many of the country's leading foundations, including Kresge, Ford, Rockefeller, Kellogg, Skillman and Knight, are funding arts, education and development projects.

The Urban Land Institute is helping to revitalize a downtown corridor. The federal government has spent hundreds of millions, and Bing is seeking millions more.

"It's open season," said Chazz Miller, an artist and entrepreneur in Detroit who was handed a $15,000 grant from the Knight Foundation last year after speaking on a panel about urban renewal. He's now applying for a $40,000 grant for a beautification project in the Brightmoor neighborhood. "There's over a million dollars a year now for public art in Detroit."

Bing announced a plan on Monday to encourage city police officers and firefighters to live in Detroit as a way of bolstering neighborhoods. Using federal dollars and deals with local banks, the city would offer homes for as little as $1,000.

The mayor is trying not just to save Detroit for its residents, but also to create the kind of city that others will want to return to, said Robin Boyle, a professor of urban planning at Wayne State University in the city. "Bing, since he came on board, has consistently held the position publicly that this is a time that requires decisive and directional changing intervention," he said.

"There is a new day," Boyle said. "The question is, do they have the will and the capacity and the facility to make a change in a place that is so economically and socially and environmentally impacted as Detroit?"

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