Kurt Hesse is about as purebred a Detroiter as you can find these days. He was born here, grew up here, and still works for the company his granddad founded in 1888 — Detroit Cornice and Slate.
He's a 47-year-old businessman who for years has been trying to help his community and make a living. These days, that isn't easy. Given the economy, there's not a lot of call for exquisite copper and slate roof work in this area, and he's been commuting back and forth to places like Clearfield, Pa., or Duluth, Minn.
And he is angry at and disgusted with Michigan government — but not for the reasons outfits like Fox News would lead you to expect. Hesse is no Tea Party know-nothing. He's been fighting to revitalize Delray, his dying old Southwest Detroit neighborhood. He lived there as long as he could, till the poverty and crime drove him to Royal Oak.
His family still owns an old, circa-1929 Mediterranean-style building called Berwalt Manor, in Delray. For years, Kurt, his wife, and 72-year-old mother have been working hard to rehabilitate the Berwalt's 67 units, pouring sweat equity into it, one floor at a time.
But in the last couple years, he's had new hope. Delray is where the American side of the proposed new Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC) is supposed to be built and should be built. Everybody from L. Brooks Patterson to Jennifer Granholm to Fiat's Sergio Marchionne to the Canadian government say the bridge is needed, and that the Delray site is where the U.S. end should go.
That, Kurt feels, could turn around everything. "We're getting by," he told me on the Fourth of July. "But if this happens, we're going to be more than OK." The project would create thousands of temporary construction jobs, and some permanent ones too.
"Is the DRIC project the magic bullet? Maybe. Will it attract more businesses to the area? Absolutely! This is a freeway-to-freeway connection on the busiest trade corridor between two friendly countries."
For a long time, he was reluctant to get excited. Over the years, Hesse has seen "one broken dream after another" come to nothing in Delray. But this was something different. When every government signed on, he took notice.
When the Michigan House passed the DRIC he figured it was bound to happen. "Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Ohio, Oakland County, two former governors, the UAW, Canada and the city of Detroit have all joined in entreating our elected representatives to do this for the good of our state." Republicans in the Ohio state Senate supported the new bridge — unanimously.
But Ohio Republicans aren't getting money from Manuel J. "Matty" Moroun, the 83-year-old billionaire who owns the Ambassador Bridge — and is determined to stop the new bridge at any cost. Minor cost to himself, that is; major cost to our state's prosperity and the nation's security. And now for the bad news.
The bad guy, for now at least, seems to be winning. Last week, state Sen. Jud Gilbert, a Republican from Algonac, became the latest to bow to the plutocrat. Gilbert, who chairs the Transportation Committee, didn't even have the decency to admit he had sold out to Moroun. He simply refused to allow his committee to vote on the bill.
That means it won't be sent to the full Senate. Gilbert is term-limited, and in six months will likely be back to his original job, which was embalming corpses. Perhaps he hopes to eventually be called on to rouge the cheeks of a dead Moroun.
Speaker of the House Andy Dillon, no political virgin he, called what the undertaker did outrageous. It amounted to, he noted, choosing "to side with special interests and derail any action this week on a project that would bring 10,000 jobs and $1.8 billion in economic benefits to the state."
Gilbert essentially said he didn't care.
Kurt Hesse was shocked. "The bridge controversy has provided me with a crash course in how Michigan politics work. ... I am sick of hearing the weeping and wailing of a billionaire because someone told him he had to go through the permit process like any other business."
He was hopeful that democracy still worked in America, and that Moroun "is not above the laws of the land just because he has more money to purchase dirty politicians." Yet he now wonders. The courts have ordered Moroun to vacate a city park he illegally seized and to tear down a duty-free shop he illegally constructed. He hasn't done so.
Last week a federal court ordered this loathsome creature to stop calling the Ambassador Bridge a "federal instrumentality." The idea of any government giving him anything other than a subpoena ought to be absurd. Canada says there is no way they'll ever let him build another bridge. Moroun's slum properties, beginning with the hulking ruin of the Michigan Central Depot, are a blot on Detroit.
Yet the money he still shovels into campaign coffers continues to buy him not only respect, but special favors. "Can I influence politicians with my voice?" Hesse asked. "That's a joke. They don't work for the people. We pay them what amounts to minimum wage compared to the hundreds of thousands he's stuffed in their campaign chests."
For him, the bottom line is this: "Who doesn't want this public bridge? One very wealthy, wealthy man.
"Can his money buy a 'no' vote? We'll soon see, won't we?"
Then he paused. He is cynical, but hasn't given up. "Hopefully I am wrong and our elected officials have some moral standards," he said.
How's that no-delivery model workin' out for ya? Fifteen months ago, Gannett's Detroit Free Press and its remora, The Detroit News, began a new policy of delivering the papers only on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. They wanted you to read it online.
You still could get it in the mail if you wanted to end up a lot of dollars short. You could still go buy a shrunken, stripped-down version of the paper at some corner gas stations — but when it turned out a lot of folks were doing that, they doubled the single copy price! Do what Big Brother says, you Delta-minuses.
What the Detroit Newspapers were most insistent on was no delivery on non-delivery days. When people offered, Lafayette Boulevard slapped them down, fast and hard.
Well, what a difference a few months make. A friend picked up the Freep on her doorstep in Waterford last Thursday, and a piece of paper fluttered out, announcing: "Seven-day delivery is back!" It was from a John Smith, who explained he'd been contracted to offer deliver "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday in the 48327 zip codes."
Naturally, it will cost ya — $1.50 a day, for a paper that the Free Press would bring to your house two years ago, when it was a far thicker product, for less than a third of that.
Nice. Instead of eliminating the middleman during troubled times, the Freep is adding one. So — what are the chances that the Detroit papers' business model will ever be a success?
The beginning of John Smith's e-mail address may say it best. It is, I kid you not: longshot.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]