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Duggan's first term steadied the ship. Where will he steer Detroit if re-elected?

Aug 21, 2017

I had an extended conversation with Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan last week, and I learned a few things that might surprise you.

I’m not talking, by the way, about his current campaign for re-election. As with any election, this one ain’t over until it's over. But the mayor won the primary this month with an astounding 68 percent of the vote, compared to less than 27 percent for his only real challenger, State Senator Coleman Young II.

The odds are overwhelming, in other words, that the mayor will get four more years. I didn’t want to talk about that, however, but about the city’s future and what he might do in a second term.

In his first term, the city survived bankruptcy and emerged from emergency management. For the first time in decades, there are working lights on every street in Detroit.

Now, it’s a matter of more economic progress. And the first thing the mayor said was “I learned a great deal in this Foxconn process, and the biggest was: Detroit needs larger parcels of land.”

Foxconn, you may remember, is a giant technology firm based in Taiwan. Governor Rick Snyder aggressively courted Foxconn, and he got the legislature to pass a business incentive package that would have allowed Foxconn to keep some or all of the state income tax their future Michigan-based employees paid.

This was all for nothing. In the end, Foxconn went to Wisconsin. Early on in the courtship process, Duggan had hoped to get the technology firm to locate in Detroit.

But he soon learned that couldn’t happen. Foxconn needed a huge area — a thousand acres or more — on which to build the huge display plant it wanted.

“We don’t have that. The city got built up as residential neighborhoods, and while we own a lot of land, what we own is like a bunch of checkerboards of former residential lots,” Duggan told me.

“We’re going to have to assemble those parcels if we are going to compete with the Pittsburghs and the Clevelands, not to mention the Sterling Heights and the Farmingtons,” he told me.

This isn’t a new problem. In his classic book The Origins of the Urban Crisis, historian Thomas Sugrue said that this was a key factor in Detroit’s decline after World War II. Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler wanted to build efficient new plants where everything was on one huge floor. But land like that was not available in the city, where thousands of residential houses and little shops had been thrown up without regard for zoning.

Duggan is very aware of that book, and as an attorney, he is aware the courts have ruled cities can no longer invoke eminent domain to take land to give to private business. But I think he has ideas about how to assemble the land needed. He is a guy who finds creative ways to get things done.

“If I do get re-elected, I think a second term will be much more fun,” he told me. His first term, he said, was largely about recreating a culture of responsibility. Now, he said he can focus on creating opportunity.

I left thinking that of course Duggan has no interest in running for governor. In Detroit, he is having too much fun getting major things done.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. 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.