If you’ve heard about Detroit in the news lately, it’s likely that what you’ve heard isn’t good. Detroit’s reputation is that of a city plagued by chronic financial mismanagement, high crime rates, a diminishing tax base, and the collective longing for an auto-industry that is most likely never coming back.
That grim reality is a far cry from the Detroit of decades past. Once the richest city in America, its peak population was well over double what it is today. Detroit attracted so many people due to its status as a hub of auto production and manufacturing in general. Work was plentiful in factories all over the city and Detroit’s growth was the focal point of an overall middle class explosion following World War II.
Unfortunately, things didn’t last long. The latter half of the 20th century saw Detroit’s population flee to the surrounding suburbs while most of its factory doors shuttered as foreign automakers and the realities of a globalized marketplace took hold.
For all of its struggles, it comes as a surprise to many people that the city still finds opportunities to administer grant money to a broad range of civic-minded organizations, non-profits, and private business interests. While it may seem strange to give out city money at a time when local officials are reorganizing piles of debt and cutting the most basic of services, it also indicates two truths in Detroit: First, the city’s willingness to spend on growth and innovation signals that Detroit is committed to reviving its once great legacy. Second, if you offer a service that can further that goal, Detroit might be ready to work with you.
Government grants have long been regarded, not without controversy of course, as an important aspect of government’s role in our lives. The fact is that traditional sources of funding, banks and other lenders, are motivated by profit. As such, those projects and initiatives that lack the potential for profit are ignored by these lenders; when the private sector cannot provide, the burden falls on the shoulders of governments at all levels.
The City of Detroit understands all too well the need to spend in hopes of bringing about a brighter future. Even when the funds are limited, the smallest efforts can yield big results. Take for example Detroit’s plan for creating Renaissance Zones throughout the city. The program declares 16 zones within the city’s boundaries as “Renaissance Zones” and provides special benefits to those who own property or are willing to invest there. The city, with cooperation from state and county governments, has eliminated city, state, and county property taxes as well as utility and city income tax for residents and business owners in these zones.
Faced with the challenge of tackling a massive vacancy problem and the urban decay that comes along with it, Detroit’s Renaissance Zone program represents a perfect example of how even cash strapped municipalities can use grant expenditures to bring about positive change and stimulate an economy.
In a city as challenged as Detroit, the power of grant funds can help those with nothing just as much as those with homes to build and businesses to run. That’s why Detroit has made available significant funds for organizations that help the city’s large homeless population, estimated recently at 20,000 people. $75,000 is available for organizations that perform outreach in the homeless community and it allows them to make contact with the homeless population, in hopes of making a lasting, positive impact on their lives.
In a city that faces a long list of hurdles on its path to stability and remaining economically viable, a program like this presents an answer to urban decay. In a broader sense, it also demonstrates how expenditures in the form of grants can make a positive impact on life in Detroit.
As mentioned before, a significant problem in the City of Detroit is the fact that so much of its housing stock sits vacant and dilapidated. Add that to the fact that demographic indicators don’t suggest a rush of people coming back to Detroit anytime soon, and you can understand the source of the urban blight that Detroit has become so famous for. That’s why the City of Detroit is beginning a process of spending roughly $47 million dollars to do something about the problem. Through its Neighborhood Stabilization Program, the city will spend roughly $15 million of those funds to knock down vacant houses and reorganize several neighborhoods hit hardest by the wave of foreclosure and abandonment.
Again, this expenditure on the part of the City embodies the power that municipal grants and expenditures can have in bringing about positive change in a community. By focusing on the areas hit hardest, these expenditures will allow the city to claw back a portion of what it used to be, stimulating local business and improving quality of life in the process.
Next time you hear someone say that Detroit is broken and has no money to provide even the most basic services, remember that it is only partly true. More accurately, Detroit is wisely using the limited funds it does have available to work with local organizations and businesses in an attempt to bring about progressive change in the community.
The Detroit we once knew is probably never coming back, but the prosperous Detroit everyone wants to see will only come as the result of a strong union between public funds and private industry know-how. That’s good news for Detroit and it’s good news for anyone whose business or skill set may be able to help the city take its next step into the future.