High stakes beyond the game

Feb 1, 2006 at 12:00 am

Just last week, Ford Motor chief exec Bill Ford tried to put a somewhat optimistic spin on the fact that the wheels are coming off his company. What a great way to cap the 2006 Detroit International Auto Show — an auto show that we may not be able to keep for much longer, at least not on the international level, unless somebody figures out a way to build a better Cobo. Ever watch the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote? Remember all those flawed Acme products to which all you had to do was add water and a brand new structure would just pop right up? Well that may be what we need, but, unlike the cartoon product, ours would have to work.

So here we are at the beginning of 2006, and the president of the auto company that put the world on wheels — and Detroit on the map — is now struggling to keep that same company afloat in some very turbulent waters, surrounded by sharks with the name Toyota branded on the side. OK, maybe I overworked the imagery just a tad, but you get my point. For Ford, and for the American auto industry, this is do-or-die time.

This is also do-or-die time for the Detroit economy — and for Michigan's as well. Although it has been repeated ad infinitum that we need to wean ourselves from the manufacturing economy and upgrade to something that might provide a healthier future, such a transformation has yet to happen, and who knows when it will? In the meantime, here we are holding our collective breath that Ford can pull a rabbit out of the hat, and that the rabbit won't be dead.

Meanwhile, here comes Super Bowl XL. Everyone keeps saying that all eyes will be on Detroit, watching to see if we're able to pull this off. Can a broke, predominantly black city that still can't manage to shake its image as a crime-ridden hellhole successfully host the biggest sports event in the world?

Well, yeah. Sure we can. Maybe I'm sounding too optimistic for some, but I'm really not too worried about how well we manage to host the Super Bowl. Honest. So much meticulous preparation has been invested in this thing that we'd have to work a lot harder to fail than to succeed. We made it work during the baseball All-Star Game, and we can do it again. Detroit has always known how to host a good party, and those who forgot that — or who never knew — will find out just how strong Detroit can turn it on when we want to.

So, no, I'm not worried about the Super Bowl. What I am worried about, however, is what comes after the Super Bowl. According to Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, the Super Bowl could inject nearly $300 million into the economy, which isn't chump change. No doubt that will help the city quite a bit — but I don't think it's enough to save the city all by itself. I'm sure the mayor knows that, and I also hope he knows that whatever momentum this city might gain from a successful Super Bowl could easily come to a screeching halt, and even kick into reverse, without a determined and consistent effort to keep improving Detroit as if there's a Super Bowl coming to town every month. It's important to put on a good face for the rest of the world, but it's even more important to put on a good face for ourselves because we're the ones who live and work here every day. All the big-spending high rollers coming to town, who will be hopping back and forth to all the glitz-and-glam parties that the overwhelming number of Detroiters could never afford and would never be invited to, will be hopping back in their limos and chartered jets just as soon as the fourth quarter comes to a close. The rest of us will still be here — to deal with Bill Ford's recent announcement, for instance.

His company plans to cut nearly 30,000 jobs nationwide. As has been reported, the ripple effect of the jobs lost in this area will be felt in all manner of businesses and industries and services. Once these folks are given the pink slip, the devastation that will be visited upon their families cannot be overstated. I don't know how many of those soon-to-be-unemployed workers live in the city of Detroit, but these are among the rapidly dwindling number of working families who used to make enough money to contribute something to the local economy. Consider the fact that an estimated 10,000 people per year are leaving the city for greener pastures, and the effect that a rising level of unemployment could have on this city should become clear. Last November, Detroit reportedly had the highest unemployment rate — at 6.8 percent — of any urban area in the nation except for New Orleans.

Having said all that, it's also clear that bitching and moaning isn't going to help much either. As I've said before, this is up to us. Personally, I believe the mayor is serious about his commitment to the revitalization of Detroit, and I believe it extends beyond the Super Bowl. After all of the crap surrounding his first term he feels like he has something to prove, and that could be a good thing. But whatever the source of Kilpatrick's motivation, he can't possibly turn this city around all by himself. This is our city and we all need to take ownership. Maybe that means becoming involved in a neighborhood organization, or maybe it means getting involved in a church that is actively working to improve the city and not just preaching about what it takes to get to heaven. I happen to believe that if you want things to go well for you up yonder, then you need to take care of business down here on the ground.

Earlier this month, when I took my car in to get repaired, my mechanic asked whether I sensed a higher level of "civic patriotism" among Detroiters now that we find our backs up against the wall. He says he's found that those Detroiters who have chosen to stay in the city — or who have moved to the city — amid all the storm and fury of bad news, are becoming a new backbone for the city. Those who are leaving are leaving, and that's too bad, but those who are staying are more committed than ever to the success of this city, and that's very significant. As a sign of his own commitment, he recently moved from Royal Oak to a very nice apartment complex in Detroit that he absolutely loves. The shock expressed by some of his friends when he, a white man, made the decision to leave trendy Royal Oak for downtown Detroit, still amuses him in a frustrating sort of way. What is less amusing is how many times he's been told by suburbanites he's tried to hire that there is no way they would ever work in the city.

But that has hardly dampened my mechanic's sense of civic patriotism — I really like that term — and, like a true Detroiter, he continues to stress that all Detroiters should make an extra effort to patronize Detroit. Shop here, live here, work here.

Because this is up to us.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]