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
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.
U.S. Census Bureau statistics show the 1980 Downriver median family income was
 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
Unemployment. Michigan Employment Security
Commission statistics show that Downriver unemployment was 7.3 percent in August
 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%).
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:
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.
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.
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."
 Downriver will be
hard-pressed to compete with high-growth areas like Oakland County given such
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
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?