In new Canadian bridge deal, Detroit, Lansing, and Washington continue to drag their feet 

Douglas George, Canada's new consul general in Detroit, is a patient man. He's had to be. A lifetime diplomat, he's sat through trade negotiations all over the world, negotiating agreements on intellectual property and softwood lumber.

Most recently, he served for three years as Canada's ambassador to Kuwait. Now, at 56, he presides over what is actually a mini-embassy in the Renaissance Center — and waits for us to finish getting it together for a new bridge over the Detroit River.

A bridge, that is, that both countries need, that will create thousands of jobs, and that Canada is willing to pay for.

However, Detroit, Lansing, and Washington are costing us money and time by dragging their feet and screwing things up.

To Canada, Detroit is the most economically important border crossing, period. More than a billion dollars a week in freight, mainly heavy automotive components, passes over the aging Ambassador Bridge, completed in 1930.

There is no alternative. Trucking this stuff to Port Huron or Buffalo wouldn't be cost-effective. You can't take it through the tunnel. Other than that, there's just one tiny barge, which takes trucks loaded with hazardous chemicals.

The economies of both nations desperately need a new bridge for security and the future. Even if the Ambassador could be rebuilt, it's in the wrong place. Trucks crossing over have to endure surface streets and 16 traffic lights before reaching Highway 401, Ontario's rough equivalent of I-75.

For years, business and governments have fought with Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun, who has tried everything to protect his monopoly and stop a new bridge. For years, he managed to do just that, principally by confusing the public and buying off lawmakers with campaign and other contributions.

However, in the last few years, the tide has turned, in large part due to Gov. Rick Snyder standing up to Moroun. Then, too, Canada is footing the bill for all of Michigan's expenses, with the vague understanding that the state will pay the money back someday out of our share of the toll revenue. Now, essentially only two problems remain:

Washington has to come up with about a quarter-billion to pay for the necessary customs plaza (Canada being another nation, after all). Canadians find the delay somewhat baffling, but as George told me last week, "We don't want to give the impression that we're trying to hurry the U.S government."

But there's also the question of the neighborhood.

Canada has assembled all the land they need for the New International Trade Crossing (NITC) bridge's footprint on their side of the border. But this isn't true on the American side.

The NITC would land squarely in Delray, a once-thriving, multi-ethnic community in Southwest Detroit. Even Delray's biggest boosters would admit it's seen better days.

Delray's population is a shadow of what it once was. Many homes have been abandoned for years, or are vacant lots. Those who remain think it only fair that they get something in return for their aggravation and the families that will be displaced.

Everybody connected with the new bridge has promised good things are coming, but they haven't been exactly eager to commit to anything. Consequently, the residents have banded together as the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition. They want a share of the jobs.

They want a new recreation center for their kids, and they want some pledges put in writing. They know that if that doesn't happen, they're likely to get what they've been getting: little or nothing.

In past years, it was easy for city officials to steamroll and ignore any particular neighborhood. But Detroit has district council members now, and one of them, Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, represents the people of Delray.

She wants to make sure they get something out of this multibillion-dollar project. Late last month, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr was all set to have City Council approve the sale of 301 city-owned parcels of Delray land to the state of Michigan, which would be buying them for $1.4 million with money provided by Canada, to be used for the bridge.

But Castenada-Lopez wanted a community-benefits agreement first, and it was clear that her colleagues agreed.

The Emergency Manager then, for the first and only time, pulled the request back. "It's an international agreement, (but) I think you need support from the host community to move it forward," Casteneda-Lopez said.

The councilwoman, who didn't get back to me in time for this column, was to meet with Delray residents this week, presumably about what might be possible.

Douglas George, now Canada's main point man on the bridge, said he wasn't frustrated. On the contrary. Back in the 1970s, as a teenager growing up in Sarnia, he and his friends came to Detroit every chance they got for concerts.

George loves Detroit. And although he's been saddened by its decline, he's excited by how fast things seem to be getting better now. And he and his government want to make sure the bridge gets built.

If it doesn't, everyone loses, and there will be only community harms, not benefits. Finessing this one will take diplomatic skills on all sides, not just from the Canadians.

Ironic and Sad

Millions of people now know — or think they know — Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager shot to death by police in Missouri earlier this month.

What exactly happened is still disputed, though I can't think of any way to justify the shooting of a weaponless kid at least six times. For too many people in too many places, walking while black can still be a death sentence.

What's sadly ironic, however, is that a true civil rights pioneer named Claudia House Morcom died in Detroit Aug. 17, and her death received essentially no notice for days.

I did not know her well, though we did serve together on an advisory committee for the ACLU. But I knew that she was unfailingly warm and gracious — and she had nerves of steel.

During her lifetime, Morcom, 82, did more for civil rights than everybody in Ferguson, Mo., last week combined. Fifty years ago, as a 32-year-old black lawyer from Detroit, she went to Mississippi when that literally meant risking her life.

She went down to try to help people register to vote, and to legally defend others doing so. The very day she arrived, three civil rights workers — James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner — were kidnapped, tortured, and killed.

The situation was so dangerous that the National Lawyers Guild asked her to stay only for a week. She stayed her week, went back to Detroit, packed a few things and went back — for a year.

Later, she became the first black female judge in Wayne County Circuit Court. She spent her life fighting for justice, not just for blacks, but for women and anyone who was oppressed. Last fall, already fighting the cancer that would kill her, she urged President Obama to release five Cuban nationals she believed were political prisoners in this country.

Had she been healthy, everyone who knew her thought she might well have gone down to Ferguson to ask for justice for Michael Brown and, more importantly, to try to prevent other young men from being killed.

Claudia Morcom deserves not to be forgotten. — mt

More by Jack Lessenberry

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