Commentary: Emergency Manager for Detroit

Mar 15, 2013

When Governor Snyder announced he was appointing an emergency manager for Detroit, I was in Traverse City, having lunch with a former governor who long ago tried his best to get the state to help Michigan’s largest city stay on its feet.

William Milliken served as governor longer than anyone has or ever will – fourteen years.

He is a firm believer in something Rick Snyder said earlier this week – that it is not Detroit vs. Michigan, but a situation where a healthy Detroit is essential to the entire state.

Thirty-six years ago, speaking to the  National Governors’ Conference when it met in Detroit, Milliken said, “if we  can’t solve our urban problems, we can’t solve the problems of America.”

He told his fellow governors that “cities have always been the center of civilization as we have known it. We are now at the point where we will determine whether our cities become [the] monuments of the death mounds of our civilization.”

Milliken angered some conservatives in his party by insisting that the state help Detroit.

The governor helped push bills through the legislature to give the city millions in aid.

Milliken’s rationale was that Detroit was running institutions that benefited the entire state, such as the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Zoo, and that Michigan should help foot some of the bill.

Detroit Mayor Coleman Young would end up concluding that Milliken was the greatest governor the state  ever had.  

But helping Detroit wasn’t popular in the years after Bill Milliken left office 30 years ago.

Times got worse, and the city was often its own worst enemy, when it came to choosing leaders and managing finances.

Governor Milliken turns 91 this month, but still actively follows statewide events.

Yesterday, he told me he was sad.

Sad that things had come to this, and he asked me how much anger I thought there was among the population.

Anger that control of their city was being taken away from their elected leaders.

I told him what former councilwoman Shiela Cockrel told me, that people are desperate for anything that can restore public safety and make their lives somewhat better.

It was clear to me that he still cares very much about Detroit, a place where a few years ago they dedicated William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor, Michigan’s only urban state park.

Yesterday, we learned the city will be turned over in 10 days to a man who was in law school at the University of Michigan when Bill Milliken retired as governor.

Kevyn Orr has handled difficult cases before, such as the bankruptcy recycling of Chrysler.

He told an  interviewer yesterday that was also a situation where things were tough and he faced a “tremendous amount of pessimism at the front end.”

But today, he noted, “Chrysler is going gangbusters,” and is making money hand over fist.

That’s certainly true.

But true in large part because at the end of the day, Chrysler had a product to sell that people wanted to buy. Vehicles.

At the end of the day, Detroit too will need something to sell, something that will bring people and money back.

The months ahead are bound to be interesting times.