Detroit: Open for Business

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing // Photographs by Cybelle Codish

The Detroit Pistons still played there when he arrived in town as a rangy 22-year-old who would soon become the NBA rookie of the year. He would go on to Hall of Fame status, but last year, he set a record few would have envisioned: He won four elections for Mayor of Detroit.

All that voting was due to an odd quirk in the city charter, and the resignation of the disgraced and convicted Kwame Kilpatrick.

The irony was that this came after Bing spent a lifetime trying to avoid politics.

At 66, however, he felt he had no choice. “I have never seen so many people in pain and hurting. If you love the city, you can’t just leave it in misery. So I decided to run, against the wishes of my family and friends.

“They said it’s time to enjoy life. I said, ‘No, this is what I need to do. This is my calling right now, and I’m going to give it everything we’ve got.’ ”

He knows that, this month, out-of-towners will flood in for the North American International Auto Show, people whose knowledge of his city is based on the image of devastation in a recent Time cover story.

Bing knows he can’t change that overnight. Yet he also knows that despair isn’t all there is to the Motor City. He has a message he wants to send to people in the city, the state, and beyond: Detroit is open for business.

“We have our problems, and we aren’t going to shy away from those problems, but there are a lot of good things going on, also. And we want to make sure people know about the good things happening in Detroit; it’s not all bad.”

Detroit’s new mayor recently shared his assessment of the real state of the city, his biggest problems, and how he plans to lay the foundation for Detroit’s turnaround.

Kwame Kilpatrick was back in town this fall after being accused of violating the terms of his probation. Do you feel you have to do a certain amount of damage control?

Absolutely. It is unfortunate, but I am a realist. You know, we went through, and are still going through, a yearlong fallout from him personally, and his administration. He let a lot of people down, and we’re paying for that. So you have to work harder than you normally would to change the perception of folks.

How do you change Detroit’s image?

It’s personal. It’s about touching people, it’s about communicating with people, it’s about being honest with people — good, bad, or indifferent. You’ve got to let people know what’s really happening. And a lot of folks obviously lost confidence in the leadership here in the city. And that’s not something that’s easy to overcome, but I think I bring a certain amount of maturity, I think I bring a certain amount of honesty, a certain amount of credibility. All those things help, but it’s going to take time.

Could you rank your top three to five goals?

No. 1 would be financial stability. No. 2 would be safety. No. 3 would be education. No. 4 would be job creation. No. 5 would be both right-sizing city government and the size of the city.

Back when he was Detroit’s auditor general, Joe Harris said he thought it was inevitable that, sooner or later, the city would fall into receivership. Was he wrong?

I can’t say that he was wrong. I’m not going to sit here and try to predict the future, but we’ve got a financial crisis that’s been going on for some time. I think the past administration, and so far this administration, have been able to push that back. We’re going to do everything we can to keep us out of bankruptcy and having an [emergency] financial manager come in. But based on what’s happening in the national economy and the Michigan economy and surely in Detroit, it’s not going to be easy.

How bad is the city’s economic situation?

I knew that I inherited somewhere between a $280- and a $300-million deficit. That’s huge, no doubt about it. The thing that I really wanted to focus on is not adding to the deficit. And if the economy wasn’t so bad, and there was a revenue stream I could count on, I think I could manage … but every day, the revenue stream is going south. And until we stabilize that, we’re not going to be able to grow the economy, and without growth, you’re looking at a disaster.

What do you do to stimulate that growth?

What I think we have to do is change attitudes. We can’t change the business climate. We have to change the way we do business in the City of Detroit, because, for years, business people who have tried to do business with the city have always said it was very difficult.
A one-stop shop in Detroit where you could apply for permits, etc., has been suggested.
We’re working on it as we speak. Permits are a big issue. And I’ve heard a lot of small-business people in particular complain vociferously about how complicated it is. Another thing that’s a problem: The city owns or leases a lot of real estate. We’ve got people all over the place. And it makes it very difficult for anyone to get anything done, without going to one centralized location. We’re going to make sure we do that, also.

Detroit has had mayors who campaigned against the suburbs. What kinds of signals do you want to send to the region?

Frankly, we need to be supportive — and supported by — other areas within the state, all the way up to Lansing. I’ve been fortunate in the 43 years I’ve been here to have established relationships with people outside of Detroit. And that’s to our benefit right now, because I think I’ve built up trust, I’ve built up relationships. They’re coming to the table, and we need all of that right now.

What kind of reception have you gotten from Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson?

Brooks and I have known each other for a long time. I have great respect for Brooks. We don’t always agree, but I respect him as a manager; I think he’s done a good job managing Oakland County, and there’s things I might be able to learn from him. So I don’t look at him with a negative viewpoint at all.

The city schools are now under an emergency financial manager. Do you think they should be run by the mayor?

I’m not afraid of responsibility. And a big responsibility in this city, if we’re going to come back, is having the right kind of education system. I’m supportive of mayoral control. But how we get there is the issue. There are other big urban [school systems] that are under mayoral control that are doing well, so there’s a model out there that works: Chicago, Boston, New York, now New Orleans.

So we wouldn’t be out there on an island all by ourselves. I’m not pushing for mayoral control. I don’t know how receptive our population would be to that. I do think, however, that one person having the responsibility and being accountable for what happens in our schools is very important.

The state has been going through a very difficult budget process, and this hasn’t been great for cities.

We’ve been dependent upon the state for different things. And the state being where they are financially — I understand that they can’t give us the kind of support that we’ve traditionally gotten. But, once again, I think that this is where leadership is important. If this city is as important to the state as most people think, then we’ve got to find a way to make sure we get the kind of support we need from the state to sustain ourselves. Because if Detroit doesn’t make it, if Detroit fails, if Detroit goes into receivership or whatever the case may be — it’s a black eye, not only for Detroit but for the state. And they’ve got to, I think, go beyond the call of duty to see what they can do outside of what has been done traditionally to help the city.

You talked about right-sizing the size of the city.

We still have approximately 139 square miles in the city of Detroit. We may be using 50 percent of that as livable space. So all of a sudden, you’ve got something close to 70 miles of vacant land. Instead of looking at that as a negative always, we have to turn it into a positive. Instead of us crying and lamenting how bad things are, let’s start asking: What can we do with this land that we aren’t doing today? People talk about urban farming. That has potential.

People talk about creating more green space. I think that’s reasonable. But I think the biggest problem I’m going to have is where we’ve got communities, where there’s scarcity in terms of homes, where there aren’t a lot of people living. Trying to get people to leave and come into a more populated area is going to be very difficult. But that’s what I think I’ve got to do.

Do you think you might use some method, such as eminent domain, to make that happen?

Legally, I don’t know if I can. I think that’s something I’m going to have to look at. Now that I am in for four years, I don’t have to rush and maybe make a stupid decision. I want to sit down. I want a clearer understanding. There are a lot of people who have been in the planning process for a long time. I want to try and utilize their experience and expertise as I fashion a vision for the city.

After the September primary, you took some very difficult stands and caused some city unions to switch and support your opponent. Was that designed to give you a mandate for the tough calls ahead?

I think it was the right thing to do. I think the problem with the city and some of the prior politicians is that they were worried about getting re-elected and not doing some of the right things. They didn’t make the tough decisions when they were there, because they were worried about a political career. I’m at a point in my life where that’s not the most important thing to me. If I do what’s right, I know I can feel good about myself from a public-service standpoint.

Are you saying you are not going to run for a second term?

No, I’m not saying that at all. But you can only get elected one term at a time. If you do what’s right and things are going in the right direction, it’s up to the citizens to reject or vote you back in. I know I could have gotten a much higher percentage in the elections than I got. But I would have had to lie to people. And I wasn’t about to do that. We’ve had enough of that.

Have you decided where you are going to live?

No, I haven’t. At this point, I’m living in Grayhaven [a gated community on the city’s east side]. I’m leasing a home. The economy is horrendous, so at this point I can’t sell my home in Franklin. People have asked me whether I will move into the [Manoogian] mansion. That’s not an option right now. It’s really low [priority]. First of all, it’s not in any kind of condition to move into. It’s going to be a major investment to get it fixed up.

I’m getting some feedback from different people in the community who said we need to bring back some credibility to that address; they would like to see me move in. But once again, I’ve got much bigger problems to deal with.

What do you think is the most important part of the job?

Building the team. I can’t do this alone. I inherited some capable people. We’re not finished yet. I’m going to continue to look at the talent that I have, the talent that I don’t have and need. And it’s a tough sell, because it’s not like everybody’s knocking the doors down, wanting to work for the City of Detroit. So it’s a lot of selling, but I want to be honest and up front. I want people to know what they’re getting into. If you’re weak-kneed, if you don’t have the heart and stamina, then this isn’t the right place for you.

What would you like history to say about your administration?

That it was the beginning of Detroit’s turnaround, and that they weren’t afraid to make hard decisions. They were sensitive, but they were fair. And I think if we can achieve that, the format we leave for whoever comes afterwards is one they can take and build upon.