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Debate heats up over community benefits ordinance in Detroit

Oct 10, 2014

The Detroit City Council is considering an ordinance to ensure “community benefits” come with future large development projects—but it’s drawing some fierce pushback.

The so-called “urban development agreement” has been in the works for more than a year.

It would make sure large-scale developments offer some guaranteed benefits (like jobs for local residents and city-based contractors) and protections (like safeguards for displaced residents and the environment) to host communities.

The idea has picked up steam as development accelerates in parts of the city, amidst concerns that such projects will provide few or any benefits to neighboring residents and small businesses.

But recently, business groups and the city’s development arm, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, have scaled up the pushback.

City Council member Raquel Castenada-Lopez said backers have welcomed input from those groups—but the DEGC in particular has been “resistant” to the whole idea.

“They’re just kind of saying, ‘No,’ and ‘It’s bad policy, it’s bad for development,” Castaneda-Lopez said. “And that doesn’t really help us move forward at all.”

DEGC head Rodrick Miller warned the Council not to pursue the ordinance in a letter this week.

Miller warned that it would discourage future investment in the city by adding to the cost of business.

“The quickest way to undo all we have done to create a positive environment for new investment and to abruptly stop the economic momentum we have built over the past five years is to pass a Community Benefits Ordinance—in any form, or by any name,” Miller wrote in a letter to Council this week.

Such an ordinance “will undermine our economic progress well before our recovery has hit critical mass,” Miller added.

But advocates for community benefits dismissed those concerns as “fearmongering” at a Council hearing on the ordinance Thursday, asking critics like Miller to provide evidence of their claims.

Reverend Joan Ross, head of the North End Woodward Community Coalition, told Council that dozens of US cities like Pittsburgh have successfully implemented some type of community benefits agreement alongside a big development project.

“None of those cities have reported a collapse in economic development, a slowing down of development, or a failure to reach critical mass,” Ross said.

Castaneda-Lopez says she hopes the Council will discuss the resolution at the table next week, and vote on a version of it by next month.

However, there has been some effort to put the brakes on the process, by having the city’s top lawyer review and sign off on the ordinance before it goes forward.

Mayor Mike Duggan hasn’t taken a definitive public position on the idea of community benefits generally, or this ordinance specifically.

However, a spokesman said the mayor “shares Mr. Miller’s concerns” about potential drawbacks.