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Detroit's failed Amazon bid should be a wake-up call

Jan 20, 2018

Detroit’s comeback narrative doesn’t play in Seattle.

Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News

That’s the home of Amazon, the giant online retailer. It dropped the Motor City this week from its list of towns vying to land the company’s second North American headquarters.

Realists will not be surprised.

Fifty years of decline and dysfunction here culminated in epic auto bankruptcies. Just three years ago, Detroit emerged from the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. Population fled, taking the tax base and home ownership with it.

Legacies like those are not easily overcome by fat auto profits. Or by Dan Gilbert’s rebuild of downtown real estate. Or by the Ilitch family's District Detroit development.

Detroiters writ large may understand just how far their city has come since the Great Recession. They live it daily. They see the billions in private-sector investment. They feel the energy and pent-up demand.

But not outsiders in the smug West Coast tech cocoon. Who can blame them, really?

Officially, Amazon says Detroit’s lack of mass transit and the region’s questionable ability to attract talent torpedoed the regional effort led by Gilbert, the Quicken Loans mogul. What a surprise.

Stains from decades of disinvestment, corruption, and confrontation cannot be erased by a glossy pitch to Amazon or a billionaire’s renovation of historic buildings downtown. They’re a start, not the finish.

And Michigan can’t hide its inability to improve K-12 education — a  real scandal with negative long-term implications. From its inner cities to its richest suburbs, Michigan is presiding over a continuing slide in educational performance. How that can be tolerated much longer is a question that must be answered.

Yes, Detroit is a place where opportunity and optimism are manufactured again. But opportunities and optimism are for works-in-progress and no place in America is more of a work-in-progress than Detroit.

This town and its leaders may believe the days of decline and dissipation are over. That’s not so clear to an outside world nourished by stereotypes and coffee table books celebrating Detroit’s ruins.

Those are reality, too. Only a sustainable recovery that withstands swings in the business cycle will change that. Detroit, Michigan and its auto industry don’t just need to prove to the outside world they can weather a downturn. They need to prove it to themselves.

In the capital of self-loathing, there only are two ways to process Amazon’s humbling decision: embrace pessimism and insist the region never had a chance. Or go optimistic and avoid ugly truths.

I’d suggest a third way: be honest because self-delusion is not helpful. The Amazon effort demonstrates a couple things:

Powerful, competing interests with the right leadership can collaborate to solve a big, common problem — even if they come up short. 

And, second, those same leaders should use this humbling to lay the groundwork to push robust improvements to public transit and, more importantly, to coalesce around sweeping reform to K-12 education.

The proverbial learning experience means nothing if you don’t learn from it.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.