The Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit turns 30 years old this year. The complex opened its first phase in March 1977 and was officially dedicated by city dignitaries on April 15 of the same year. The people of Michigan were excited by the project, which was conceived as a facilitator of urban renewal. The hope was that such a large project would draw more investment, business and, ultimately, people back to the city, reversing years of decline.
It was not to be. Rather than try a different tack, however, people continue to champion big and dramatic projects to reinvent or reinvigorate the Motor City. They should not. The city needs to fix its fundamentals first.
The word "renaissance" has been used and misused with reference to alleged city comebacks too many times to recall. Indeed, the $350 million (in 1970s dollars) "Renaissance" Center was supposed to anchor Detroit’s revival. According to The Detroit News, on unveiling a plaque dedicated to the building’s private financiers, Henry Ford II (who conceived the Center) said, "Detroit has reached the bottom and is on its way back up."
In 1996, the Center was sold to General Motors for just $76 million, a fraction of what it cost to build. It is difficult to overcome the message such a return on investment sends to entrepreneurs and other investors. The failure of the Renaissance Center to generate an actual renaissance in the Motor City should have undermined municipal leaders’ faith in the power of big symbols.
In the 1980s it was the $200 million People Mover that was touted as the next big thing to revive Detroit. Leaders said the elevated transit system would make downtown travel easier, thus attracting people to Detroit for shopping and entertainment. No credible observer today would suggest that the People Mover sparked an economic revival in Detroit, yet it continues to absorb millions of dollars in subsidies to cover its operations.
Despite the People Mover’s shortcomings, public officials and others kept relying on the latest big, flashy projects to revitalize a tired city: the Fox Theatre, Comerica Park, Ford Field and Campus Martius come to mind. All of these projects may be "diamonds," but without fundamental changes to Detroit’s economy they will remain diamonds in a very big rough.
Consider the way officials and the media described the impact that these big projects would have on the city:
Fox Theatre: "Their moving downtown (from the suburbs) was one of the pivotal events in turning things around down here" — Michael Hauser, marketing manager, Michigan Opera Theatre, on renovation of the Fox Theatre and office complex ("Fox Theatre’s rebirth ushered in city’s renewal," The Detroit News, Sept. 18, 2003).
Comerica Park: "Still, the mayor contended that Comerica Park was crucial to Detroit’s comeback, if for no other reason than as a morale boost. ‘Comerica Park will help restore the excitement of urban living that has been missing far too long from downtown Detroit,’ Archer said." (Gambling Magazine April 11, 2000).
Comerica Park and Ford Field. "Ford described the $505 million, two-stadium deal reached at dawn Tuesday as historic. ‘It will mean a rebirth for the Lions and for the city,’ he said." — The Detroit News quoting William Clay Ford Jr. ("Detroit Comeback," Aug. 21, 1996).
Comerica Park. "New stadium will help bring Detroit back to life." — Op-Ed by Doug Rothwell, then chief executive of the Michigan Jobs Commission (Detroit Free Press, Sept. 25, 1995).
Ford Field. "Twenty years from now when people come downtown, they will look back at this day as the turning point in Detroit’s comeback." — Deputy Executive for Wayne County Mike Duggan (Detroit Free Press, April 11, 2000).
Compuware Headquarters at Campus Martius. "Campus Martius was Detroit’s town square in John Mullett’s 1830 city plan, and officials hope the development project that borrows its name will be the rebirth of the city’s once-bustling central business district." (Detroit Free Press, April 10, 1999).
Has the dazzle of major projects — both privately and publicly funded — blinded officials to hard economic facts? Despite all of the glitz and lofty rhetoric associated with these major projects, people continue to flee the city, presumably for better opportunity elsewhere.
It’s time for Detroit to take a different approach by addressing fundamental problems: crushing taxes and regulations, poor municipal services and a failing public school system. Only then can the Motor City hope to see the beginning of a true renaissance.
Michael D. LaFaive is director of the Morey Fiscal Policy Initiative with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. This commentary was adapted from a December 2005 article, "Flashy Projects Have Not Helped Detroit." Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.