Detroiters Can’t Depend on the “Kindness of Strangers”

By Kim Hunter

Detroiters have been waging battles on many fronts to hold onto their homes, businesses, communities, and the city during various crises. We’ve used our own mowers to cut vacant lots, banded together to battle bank foreclosures and keep our neighbors in their homes, and fought to keep water flowing to thousands of Detroit families.

One struggle that’s just beginning to emerge is the fight for fair development and the Community Benefits Ordinance.

The Community Benefits Ordinance would bring community members together to negotiate with major developers whenever those developers ask for public funding for their projects.

At the forefront of that fight is the Equitable Detroit Coalition (EDC), the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce and members of Detroit City Council including Council President Brenda Jones and Council Member Raquel Castaneda-Lopez. The Ordinance has been more than a year in the drafting and Council, EDC, and business community representatives spent months negotiating the current version of the bill.

The nature of the agreements would depend on the nature of the projects and the communities that hosts them. But hiring Detroiters, working with local businesses and making sure people are not priced out of their homes or harmed by environmental impacts would be among the items many communities would ask for in exchange for the massive public support sought by large (sometimes billionaire) developers.

EDC is a group of more than 20 community organizations that grew out of negotiations with Whole Foods when the corporation was granted 4.2 million in tax subsidies to build a store in Midtown. The group worked to make sure Detroiters got first crack at jobs and that area small businesses were not pushed out, and other benefits.  Some Detroiters were hired, but no legally binding agreement was signed and Whole Foods is not living up to its promises.

Similarly, when Marathon Oil was given a $175 million tax abatement in exchange for promising to hire Detroiters.  Marathon hired only 15 Detroiters. That cost taxpayers more than $11 million per job. The Delray community in Southwest Detroit will host a new bridge to Canada, and after 10 years of engaging, there is no guarantee for residents that project impacts will be addressed – like thousands of diesel trucks in the community. Some families will have to live next door to the truck customs plaza, with no money to move and a house no one wants to buy.

The same scenario could play out with the hockey stadium/entertainment complex proposed by Olympia Development Michigan. This would be the second major privately owned sports complex Detroiters have subsidized for the billionaire Mike Ilitch. Fifty eight percent of the new $650 million Red Wings Development will be paid for with public money and resources. But, if Olympia Development doesn’t hire Detroiters or do anything else it promised in exchange for hundreds of millions in public assistance, we’ll be in the same place we were with Marathon, up the creek, with no option for legal recourse.

It doesn’t have to continue to be this way. The Community Benefits Ordinance would create a legal framework where corporations, communities, and small business owners create mutually beneficial agreements. All parties would be held accountable and know what to expect. Detroiters would be far more invested in the success of development projects after they have sat across the table from representatives and established a relationship. The community would not have to recreate the wheel every time a major developer came seeking tax giveaways and cheap land.

As a lifelong Detroiter who has seen the many calls for neighborhood development – when the Renaissance Center (now GM HQ) was built, when Joe Louis Arena, Comerica Park and Ford Field were built and when Campus Martius was revamped – go unanswered, I know that the Community Benefits Ordinance is the tool we need to make sure neighborhoods rise with new major development projects. It would ensure that major developers give Detroiters a fair shake and that precious public dollars are not just being sucked up to bolster corporate profits. We would no longer have to rely on mere promises, the kindness of strangers, to make sure we get a return on our investment.