Savior Complexities: Who Can Hold Billionaires Accountable?

First of a Three Part Series: Selling Bridges

By Kim Hunter

It’s hard to either escape or fully grasp the effect and influence of certain Metro Detroit billionaires on the city. What seems clear is that the likes of Matty Moroun, Dan Gilbert and Mike Ilitch have rushed in to fill public space with private interests. They can do it with relative ease in Detroit, where people have been battered.

Folks who can’t find work, whose families have been denied access to water and who are in danger of having their homes taken from them are often too busy to fight back. That not only allows the super rich to work their will on what had previously been resources and spaces that belonged to all of us, but also allows them to position themselves as “saviors” for doing so.

To be sure, public officials have played their part in handing over critical public resources to private and unaccountable entities. Governor Rick Snyder has announced yet another plan to “save” Detroit schools, to be executed in part by Detroit Public Schools’ fourth unelected Emergency Manager. In fact, the Governor seems hell-bent on destroying Detroit Public Schools to make room for charters. But elected officials come and go. Billionaires just pass their power to offspring.

Such is the case with Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun, erstwhile jailbird and the star of a rather unflattering Forbes article. To be fair, Matty has not been making the rounds of late.

Moroun’s son, Matthew, was the face of the corporation at Mayor Mike Duggan’s recent press conference to announce a strange and complicated public/private land swap deal with the Bridge Company. The deal with the Bridge Company is the only plan the city has come up with to refurbish Riverside Park, a neglected and contested — but still used — public space.

Matthew Moroun was genial and earnest as he proposed to at least put windows in the hulking wreck of the train station his family owns and to pay up to $5 million to renovate Riverside Park, a public park his family’s goons unlawfully prevented residents from entering. In order to gain access at one point, residents had to cut down a fence Moroun had erected. One senior citizen stood up at the press conference and asked if he would be able to come back to the park and fish or be turned away and run off as he had been in the past. The Mayor said that wouldn’t happen again and that such animosity was a thing of the past. He continued on the theme that the press conference started on: the Morouns are major employers, so let bygones be bygones. They have offered to save the park and we need the park.

Duggan also assured us the Morouns would hold up their part of the bargain because park improvements are contingent upon the Morouns getting permission to build a second bridge next to the one they already own. What he didn’t delve into is that getting the needed permits from the U.S. side of the river seems daunting and getting the permits from the Canadians seems impossible. In the past, the Canadians have denied the Morouns that permission and even declined to land the joint U.S.-Canadian bridge in that same space in downtown Windsor. Two million of the proposed five million dollars in the deal depends on the unlikely second span being built.

So, whether he admits it or not, this convoluted deal puts the Mayor of Detroit in the position of lobbying for the private interest of billionaires in order to secure public space. I haven’t even broached the total lack of public input on the plan hatched in secret by the Mayor and the Morouns. The secrecy and lack of public participation came at least in part because it was private profit – the “need” for another bridge – that drove the deal and not public benefit.