Flashy Projects Flash Back

It didn't have to come to this for Detroit

With Detroit on the threshold of literally running out of cash to pay its bills, a consent agreement has been signed shifting the city’s governance to a small team led by Mayor Dave Bing. The city has traveled a good way further down the road to ruin since the Mackinac Center published an article in 2007 called “Flashy Projects Have Not Helped Detroit.”

That article chronicled the hype and the hope that has accompanied high profile Detroit projects and real estate deals over the decades, from the Renaissance Center to the People Mover to Compuware’s Campus Martius project. The thesis revealed by the article’s title generated angry responses from some Detroit boosters at the time. Here’s part of what one resident wrote to the Center:

Many of the “projects” that Mr. LaFaive mentions in his article are historic and have had dramatic impact on Downtown Detroit, these include the Ren Cen, The Fox Theater, Ford Field, Comerica Park and Compuware — they are all incredible projects and all the quotes he included have proven to be true. 

… I recently moved back to Detroit from supposed “greener” pastures of Chicago and Boston and I’m now a Detroit resident that also works downtown.  My taxes are not what he says, my services are fine and the public school system we face is an American epidemic (not a Detroit only thing). 

As so many do, the writer focused solely on the “pretty faces” of these high profile projects — most are recipients of special favors from government — while ignoring the significant costs associated with them. Perhaps the worst is that such projects have served as distractions, diverting local and state policymakers from addressing the dysfunctions that are the real source of city’s decline. What good are two new sports stadiums if tax and regulatory burdens crush families and chase away business? Or if the city’s schools are dropout factories and police don’t respond to calls?

During the decade in which that article was published, Detroit lost 250,000 residents, or more than a quarter of its total population. This staggering decline is perhaps the best evidence yet that flashy projects really weren’t the cure for ails Detroit. Over the past 25 years Mackinac Center analysts have laid out many prescriptions for curing Detroit’s maladies. Had more of these been adopted years ago, maybe the city could have avoided the painful and embarrassing consent agreement under which it now must operate.