Can our neighborhoods benefit from downtown and Midtown investment? Maybe, say local leaders

Can our neighborhoods benefit from downtown and Midtown investment? Maybe, say local leaders

Fifty leaders – ranging from corporate to grass roots residents, foundations to community development professionals, academics to bankers – converged on Baker’s Keyboard Lounge on Thursday, July 27 to mull this question over, all the while feasting on Baker’s trademark “catfish nuggets” and peach cobbler.

By Maggie DeSantis, Founder, Building the Engine of Community Development in Detroit

In a wide-ranging conversation co-moderated by Donna Murray Brown of the Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA) and Sarida Scott of Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD), the group debated whether neighborhoods can benefit from downtown and Midtown investment, discussing several different ideas as part of the Building the Engine of Community Development in Detroit initiative’s “Real Change, Real Talk” series.

Regarding the question of the night, Scott asked “Is it even possible?”  While the general consensus in the room was that it is possible for neighborhoods to leverage downtown development, at least, one participant made the clear point:  Neighborhoods will ultimately benefit when government and the private sector directly invest in them.  But the closing comment was equally clear: Neighborhoods are not going to benefit from downtown and Midtown investment unless we first, create mechanisms for this to happen; and second, not until downtown and the neighborhoods unite on behalf of the entire city.

Several leaders discussed very specific ideas and programs for how to create the mechanisms:

  • Chris Uhl from Rock Ventures discussed their research into “Social Impact Bonds,” where private sector investment in these bonds – to be invested in doing good things in neighborhoods – are repaid by the savings generated from less government spending on social problems.  Could these be used to generate investment in high quality education and preparing people for work?
  • Donna Givens of Eastside Community Network proposed an entertainment tax – where a 3 percent surcharge is added to the ticket prices at downtown and Midtown venues – and proceeds create a fund to benefit neighborhood development.
  • Tom Burns of Urban Ventures, a Philadelphia-based firm, discussed two existing corporate tax credit programs in Philadelphia and Massachusetts – where corporations are incentivized to donate to community development corporations in Philadelphia and Boston. In Boston this program is now generating about $23 million a year for neighborhoods.
  • Maggie DeSantis of Building the Engine mentioned the Neighborhood Investment Fund (NIF) that was recently created at the Detroit City Council table, where portions of the city income tax from the Detroit Pistons players, are used to support housing and blight reduction in neighborhoods.

Some of the participants opted to focus on what Detroit neighborhoods need – and, as always, the discussion came back to eliminating adult illiteracy in Detroit, which some participants believe is as high as 50 percent. Other concerns were fixing our schools and lowering Detroit unemployment, which one participant pegged at 30 to 40 percent. A few other priorities also came to light:

  • We need to find a way to help people buy houses – not just counseling, but money to make the purchase.
  • We have to have a transportation system that works, to get people to work.
  • We are losing our small businesses because of the sudden increase in sewage and drainage fees from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD).

Responding to the problem of sewage and drainage fees, two of the foundations in the room offered information about resources that are available to support and incentivize “green infrastructure” and “permeable parking lot” solutions to help small businesses.  Resources included the Detroit Training Center and the DWSD website’s link to “Drainage Solutions.”

Donna Murray Brown (left) of the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Sarida Scott (right) of Community Development Advocates of Detroit moderated the second of the ‘Real Change, Real Talk’ series focused on the question: Can our neighborhoods benefit from downtown and Midtown investment?

The next “Real Change, Real Talk” event is scheduled 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 28 in Detroit’s District 3 at the Dakota Inn.  On the menu?  A German smorgasbord. For more information visit the “Building the Engine” website at or call Lauren Boone at (313) 818-3528.

Other comments from the July event included:

“Neighborhoods can’t benefit from downtown investment by itself….but we can create mechanisms to make that happen.”

“Only investment directly in neighborhoods can benefit neighborhoods.”

“I’m going to flip the script: Why not ask how can downtown and Midtown benefit from redeveloping our neighborhoods?

“There is a business case to be made that strong neighborhoods make a strong city….”

“Now we’re at this crossroads where we’re asking, ‘Can I love downtown and still feel there needs to be neighborhood development?’ My answer is yes.”

“We are wrestling with a lot of different ideas about how to harness the power of markets for our neighborhoods in Detroit…homeowners are being screwed by our property tax system and the tax foreclosures…what is our role in creating a different, more equitable property tax system?

“Our opponents are not downtown developers – our opponents are the rest of the state….neighborhood development won’t happen until neighborhoods develop a meaningful relationship with downtown.”

“But residents still believe there is a lack of transparency about developments that are happening – if people see these as a surprise, it corrodes trust and residents begin to feel like you have to be ‘privileged’ to be part of the discussion…”

“People are still leaving the city…we have a responsibility to keep up our neighborhoods….we are incentivizing people to move into the city but not incentivizing people who live here now, to stay in the city…what about those who don’t live in (the mayor’s) investment areas?  What about the areas where the government isn’t working?”

“There has been a new feel to both Midtown and downtown and one would only hope this would catch on in other areas of the city…but, unfortunately, it has made the cost of living go up to the point where an average working citizen can’t afford some of the better locations…we have to hope for cheaper housing in some areas, and better development in the more disadvantaged neighborhoods.”

“I work in Lansing, I live in Detroit, but I also feel like I don’t always know what’s happening in the neighborhood I live in.”

“We need a stronger Community Benefits Ordinance…Development with displacement would not have happened if our leaders had been held accountable, as they should.”

“This city is all of ours. There is value to everybody in the city. We just have to recognize that value.”

Editor’s note: Maggie DeSantis is the founder and head of Building the Engine of Community Development in Detroit and creator of the Real Change, Real Talk series. The series, held in partnership with  Lawrence Technological University’s Detroit Center for Design + Technology in the Midtown district; Community Development Advocates of Detroit, the Michigan Nonprofit Association, and TheHUB, is scheduled to continue through 2018.

Photos by Michelle & Chris Gerard




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