The purpose of this study is to examine economic development in the Downriver Detroit area. While most recent attention on economic development has focused on Oakland County and western Michigan, an important part of the state's economy has been and will continue to be the Downriver area.

Several critical factors have contributed to the long-term feasability of economic development in the area. First, Downriver is economically and geographically tied to Detroit, one of the nation's 10 largest metropolitan areas; and the Detroit-based automobile industry.

Second, Downriver offers industry access to the Detroit River, the Great Lakes and ultimately the St. Lawrence Seaway, one of the world's major international waterways. Water access has been a major factor behind industry's decision to locate in the area.

Third, Detroit Metropolitan Airport, a major transportation center for southeastern Michigan and the state's largest airport, is located Downriver in Romulus.

Fourth, major surface routes such as interstate-75, I-94 and I-275 traverse Downriver. Access to transportation centers and routes has been a key factor behind existing economic development in the area.

Finally, Ontario, Canada is accessible from Downriver from the Ambassador Bridge and Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, a factor which could take an added significance given the 1988 Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Canada. The agreement, signed by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, raises the prospect of Downriver emerging as an international trade center.

The Downriver Community. Seventeen communities south of Detroit in Wayne County encompass the Downriver area: Allen Park, Brownstown Township, Ecorse, Flat Rock, Gibraltar, Grosse. Ile Township, Lincoln Park, Melvindale, River Rouge, Riverview, Romulus, Southgate, Taylor, Trenton, Woodhaven and Wyandotte.

Township governments exist in Brownstown and Grosse Ile. The other 15 communities are governed by a mayor-city council system, although Ecorse is in receivership under court-appointed Receiver Louis Schimmel.

Income. U.S. Census Bureau statistics show the 1980 Downriver median family income was $26,717. [1] The highest median family income was in Grosse Ile Township ($40,620); the lowest in River Rouge ($18,922). Other median family incomes were: Allen Park ($29,370); Brownstown Township ($29,370); Ecorse ($20,552); Flat Rock ($25,875); Gibraltar ($27,530); Lincoln Park ($24,385); Melvindale ($23,695); Southgate ($27,440); Riverview ($30,600); Rockwood ($25,955); Romulus ($22,887); Taylor ($24,097); Trenton ($30,235); Woodhaven ($29,455); and Wyandotte ($23,195).

Unemployment. Michigan Employment Security Commission statistics show that Downriver unemployment was 7.3 percent in August 1988. [2] The lowest unemployment rate was in Grosse Ile Township (2.8%) ; the highest in Ecorse (12.2%). It is worth noting that Ecorse's high unemployment preceded Schimmel's receivership, and has been more than 10 percent for most of the decade. other unemployment figures by community were: Allen Park (5.0%); Brownstown Township (6.8%); Flat Rock (6.5%); Gibraltar (8.2%); Lincoln Park (7.7%); Melvindale (8.5%); River Rouge (12.0%); Riverview (4.9%); Rockwood (6.5%); Romulus (10.6%); Southgate (5.9%); Taylor, (8.3%) ; Trenton, Woodhaven (7.0%) and Wyandotte (6.9%).

Industry. Downriver is one of the most heavily industrialized regions in the nation. The automobile and steel industries are major employers. The impact of the two industries on the area cannot be underestimated. Auto and steel companies are major taxpayers in Brownstown Township, Ecorse, Flat Rock, Gibraltar, Riverview, Trenton and Woodhaven, and residents in surrounding communities are heavily dependent on the industries for income. Downriver's economic well-being is heavily dependent on the auto and steel industries, which dominate the area:

  • Auto. The Ford Motor Co. operates a stamping plant in Woodhaven. Chrysler Corp. maintains one of the largest engine production facilities in the world in Trenton. Chrysler also operates chemical and research plants in Trenton, and a storage facility in Brownstown Township. Mazda Corp. maintains a major automobile production facility in Flat Rock.

  • Steel. Great Lakes Steel Co. operates a steel production plant in Ecorse, and McLouth Steel Products Corp. maintains steel production facilities in Gibraltar, Riverview and Trenton.

Introductory Observations. Auto and steel have impacted Downriver in two other ways. First, failure to diversify has left the area vulnerable during periods of economic downturn. Downriver suffered a severe economic depression during the late 1970s-early 1980s while the rest of Michigan experienced a recession. Spurred by the inability of domestic auto and steel manufacturers to compete in world economic markets, this event should have served as a warning to community leaders about the merits of diversification and streamlined public services.

Second, there exists in some Downriver communities a troubling unwillingness to deal boldly or creatively with these new economic realities. Diversification has not been aggressively pursued, and local public officials continue to provide questionable services, and other services in a questionable manner, in some instances competing directly with entrepreneurs attempting to carve out a niche in the marketplace.

Furthermore, it is apparent that there is a need for a better grasp of basic economic principles by a number of Downriver public officials. In some communities, this unfilled need has acted to deter a spirit of entrepreneurship. An attitude more supportive of the private sector and the American free enterprise system would be good for' not only area residents, but also for those local officials who are already genuinely sincere about economic development and need such encouragement.

Downriver business leaders paint a generally positive, although perhaps over-optimistic picture of the current economic climate in the area. Most surprising were the sentiments expressed by several business elites that Downriver should not attempt to create the same kind of economic climate that has led to record development in Oakland County. In the words of one business leader, a former public official, "Downriver is moving at a nice, steady pace, and that's the way we want it. We don't want to repeat the Oakland County situation. That's not applicable here." Or, "All this progress. Too much progress would be bad. We want open spaces. A lot of people live down here because of that." [3] Downriver will be hard-pressed to compete with high-growth areas like Oakland County given such defeatist attitudes.

Finally, the preponderance of heavy, so-called "smokestack" industries Downriver has resulted in a negative image for the area, locally and elsewhere. Community leaders frequently cite image as a major problem. The News-Herald newspaper has editorialized, "One of the most discussed problems Downriver involves an identity crisis .... Locals like Downriver and most of what comes with it. What they don't like is the perception that many others have of the Downriver area: smoke-filled skies, factory rats and corner bars." [4]

Indeed, Downriver is suffering an identity crisis, but of a different sort. Are discredited, worn-out solutions that promote more public-sector spending or involvement, as some suggest, the answer to the area's problems? Or will Downriver face the 21st Century guided by an entrepreneurial spirit that seeks to unleash the creative energy of individuals?