Conventional wisdom

What was especially striking about Mayor Earring’s announcement that he was planning a new convention center was that nobody even stopped to pretend this would help people in the rotting and dying neighborhoods of Detroit.

Now we all have short memories, but it was barely two years ago that Kwame Kilpatrick was running for mayor, saying that he, unlike that old devil Dennis Archer, would do something to improve the neighborhoods. Being older than dirt, I recognized his words. They were, in fact, pretty much identical to the language Dennis Archer used when he was running for mayor, saying that he, unlike that old devil Coleman …

You get the picture. What is mildly baffling is that it wouldn’t have been all that hard to put a nice spin on it, claiming a new convention center is just what the doctor ordered for the poor people of the city, i.e., the ones who live there. A rising tide lifts all boats, vast new conventions will flock to Detroit once the “new Cobo” is up and humming; money will flow into the city coffers, maybe even enough so that those folks on Flanders, whose streetlight burned out around May 1971, can get the bulb replaced.

Yes, sir. That could have been said, and prettied up in a way to give it momentary credibility. But the mayor didn’t even bother with that eyewash, even though his announcement came the same week Farmer Jack said it would close three stores in Detroit and the “superstore” in Highland Park, which is especially symbolic. Built on the grounds of the old Model T plant, the building that essentially created modern Detroit, the store has a glass-encased Model T over the entrance. Well, that’s the end of any signs of life in Highland Park, I suppose.

And that’s disastrous news for many who live in the Detroit neighborhoods soon to be bereft of a grocery store. But the mayor didn’t mention any of that, perhaps because the out-of-town swells are in for the auto show, and it wouldn’t do to remind them that there are legions of desperately poor and mostly black Detroiters, close to half of whom are struggling to pay the heating bill and can’t afford any kind of vehicle at all.

The only recognition that Detroiters exist came when hizzoner acknowledged that “taxpayers from the City of Detroit and probably different places in the state will be asked to do something to contribute to this project. We don’t know exactly what.”

Taxpayers did not seem to be immediately clamoring to be allowed to help pay for a new playpen for Detroit. Within moments, L. Brooks Patterson, grand pooh-bah of Oakland County, said there was no way he’d back a sales tax hike to pay for it. Actually, in an interview with the Free Press, old Brooks made more sense than Kwame.

Patterson, whose titanic feuds with Coleman Young were legendary and tinged with racism, didn’t deny that Detroit needs a new convention center to compete nationally. Miracle of miracles, he even spoke favorably of regional cooperation. And then he told the truth.

“We can talk about everything, but we all end up at the same place. Who is going to pay for it?” he mused, adding, “I think it has to be a major, statewide effort. [Cobo] is more than just a regional asset. It is a statewide asset.”

Though he may not have fully realized it, L. Brooks Patterson, who made his reputation fighting city-suburb cooperation, had just defined the heart of the problem.

Bingo. We are all in this together, especially Detroit and its many, mostly richer suburbs. Neither city nor suburb can do it alone; never could. We’ve come to an age when some days suburban leaders recognize that more than those in the city.

For Kwame to blithely say that the taxpayers around the state will be asked to help pay for this is to invite disaster. They have to be convinced. And he did precious little to seduce anyone. His announcement seemed nothing short of half-cocked. Speaking to the Detroit Economic Club lunch that kicked off the auto show, Kwame refused to say where he thought the new convention center ought to be.

Nor did he know exactly how much it would cost ($1.5 billion was mentioned), what the city would do with the present Cobo Hall or how the cash-strapped city would pay for a new one. He blithely didn’t think there would be a problem getting something new built on the site of Cobo, which he called “prime real estate.”

Evidently he hasn’t noticed the vast acreage of long-vacant buildings on prime real estate downtown. He did say he would take a trip to Denver, where a convention center was recently expanded, to study “creative financing.”

He’ll need some of that. Detroiters have lived through announcements of many schemes that turned to dust the minute the TV cameras went off. Vacant downtown buildings were going to become casinos headed by Lee Iacocca, etc., etc. ...

Speculation is that the mayor made the announcement at this time and in this way to head off any talk that the North American International Auto Show might move elsewhere, which would be an embarrassment to the former Motor City.

So ... we’ll see. What’s needed, of course, is some form of — dare we say it — metropolitan government, a vast regional authority that can make intelligent and rational decisions about where to put convention centers and hotels.

We also need some way of making sure that those who don’t have much also get a chance at decent jobs and transportation and, most of all, hope for a better future. Do that, and they will build it, and they will come. Some might even stay.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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