Investing in Detroit pays Great (Lakes) dividends

Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson


Here’s an idea for the Great Lakes region that makes sense.

So much sense that we probably won’t do it.

What if we worked together and helped a Great Lakes neighbor — in this case a city — in need?

What if we invested significant Great Lakes restoration money in Detroit’s recovery?

Detroit’s economic, social problems and decline are known and have been documented elsewhere —  financial collapse, disinvestment, corrupt governance and population loss.

Environmentally, greater Detroit is home to the Detroit and Rouge River legacy pollutant sites. Its river has significant restoration needs beyond the legacy sites. Detroit has the legendary zip code 48127 — the most polluted zip code in the state as reported by the Detroit Free Press in 2010.

Its Belle Isle was once a gem of a park in the Detroit River facing Canada but has fallen into disrepair and disuse for lack of funding.

As rap singer Eminem said in that famous Super Bowl commercial, Detroit is a town that’s been to “hell and back.”

At this point you’re probably saying that’s all true. But why should we spend limited federal restoration money on Detroit?

First, Detroit is the face of the Great Lakes region.

Look at a map.

Detroit is smack-dab in the heart of the Great Lakes. It borders on Canada and the Detroit River which connects the upper and western portion of the lakes to the eastern section leading to the Atlantic Ocean, and the world. If the region has a geographic hub it’s Detroit.

When people on the coasts think of the Great Lakes they’re not thinking Pure Michigan or Chicago. They’re thinking “rust belt” and the problems of Detroit and other legacy cities like Cleveland, Milwaukee and Buffalo.

chicagoviewSimply put, if Detroit and its environment are allowed to languish and fail, not only does Michigan pay the price the entire region suffers. And environmental issues impact the economy and culture.

The Great Lakes region will remain as the place to be from, not move to.

The second reason to invest Great Lakes restoration money in Detroit is because it’s the right thing to do. That cue comes from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder who cited it as a reason for naming an emergency manager to put Detroit’s financial house in order.

The money is available

Federal money exists via the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative which is currently funded at $300 million per year. The good news is that Detroit’s environmental needs dovetail nicely with the initiative’s goals — focusing on cleanup of those legacy pollutant sites and restoration of near shore areas.

Few know the Detroit River like John Hartig.

I asked Hartig for a list of potential restoration projects and he quickly responded with several: soft shoreline engineering for Detroit’s River Walk, habitat and bird stopover enhancement for Belle Isle and habitat restoration on the river front’s Milliken State Park were among them.

Hartig manages the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge and is on the board of the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy. The conservancy works to develop citizen access to the river front.

Here’s the good news.

Hartig estimates that his suggested projects could be accomplished for $6 million. Let’s err high and say it’s $10 million —  that’s only 3 per cent of the federal Great Lakes restoration budget.

For perspective, the restoration initiative has spent $1.3 million to study restoration of a five acre ravine in Highland Park, ILL and $2.8 million to create an eco-tourist destination on Chicago’s Northerly Island. The Northerly Island project is expected cost another $2 million in the out years.

Highland Park is one of the most economically advantaged cities in Illinois.

Northerly Island (really a peninsula) is home to a rock concert venue which is expanding to accommodate 30,000 concert goers, hardly a site that should be a high priority for federal money.

If the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative can find millions of dollars for these marginal projects surely it can find $6 million (or more) to help with Detroit River restoration. And Detroit River restoration will help restore Detroit and the region.

Bureaucracy and politics

There will be those who can find bureaucratic or political reasons to not spend $10 million dollars to restore Detroit’s near shore areas. Their pitch is Detroit’s problems aren’t mine. Or, I’m focused on my town. They’re likely the same people who became creative to justify funding of the Highland Park and Northerly Island projects.

But there is a way this could happen.

What if a tough nerd of a politically right-leaning governor — Michigan’s Rick Snyder — connected with the pragmatic left-leaning president — Barack Obama? I’ll bet they could cut through the bureaucracy and work to help restore the Detroit River and environs in short order.

It could happen as neither are hopeless ideologues.

If they did, it would give meaning to those buzz words like partner and collaborate that we like to toss around like nickels.

Investing in Detroit River restoration won’t save the city. That will take heavy lifting by many in Michigan and Detroit. And the outcome is unknown.

But it makes a statement.

It says that we as a region care about the least advantaged of our cities — Detroit — as much as the most advantaged – Chicago. We’re willing to put pride in our Great Lakes place over politics, bureaucracy and selfishness.

It acknowledges that when Detroit is better, we’re all better.

Investing in Detroit’s environmental recovery makes sense environmentally, economically and culturally.

So much sense that we probably won’t do it.

8 thoughts on “Investing in Detroit pays Great (Lakes) dividends

  1. The Belle Isle Zoo has been closed for years–but that’s a good thing as it was a terrible place to keep animals. Having animals penned in wetland soils was totally inappropriate.

  2. I was born in Detroit. Not a suburb, but The City of Detroit. I live in Chicago now and take advantage of all the beautiful waterfront parks and environmental sensitive areas we have here along Lake Michigan. I do not see how a city like Highland Park, IL gets funding for a ravine that rambles thru their posh neighborhood but nothing gets forwarded to Detroit’s riverfront. It’s appalling. I have friends that live along that ravine that was funded,…they pay a good amount of taxes, but they could afford such cleanup sans our government’s assistance. This is a travesty, and it show’s that money talks and Detroit has none of that along those clean-up sites.

    All your points are spot on!

    Detroit has been to ‘hell and back’. I worked construction on Belle Isle and it’s zoo for a summer and it is so unique, but being killed by lack of funding and attention. Building things up and making them better restores pride back to the community and to Belle Isle, something I know that can be paid for with our government assisting. I can only imagine what the zoo looks like today….does it even exist anymore…???

  3. John Hartig has done an outstanding job managing the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. He is right to move forward toward investing in Detroit’s environmental recovery. Yes it makes sense environmentally, economically and culturally. But as noted, there will be those who can find bureaucratic or political reasons to not spend $10 million dollars to restore Detroit’s near shore areas. Apply for the GLRI money now while still possible until the Tea Party Republicans destroy the funding. Unfortunately Republican racism is also still very much alive in West Michigan and in the upper peninsula. Not only do they hate Detroit supporting Matty Maroun’s bridge, state Republicans (R-Tom Casperson & R-Geoff Hansen) are now passing legislation to defund the NRTF by stealing the money and diverting protected funds to their rich class marina/condo dredging and eventually road maintenance in the UP for Casperson’s loggers. Republicans do not want NRTF recreation funding going to Detroit to supplement the GLRI money if they can help it.

  4. Good point Karl, thanks.

    That was before the emergency financial manager was in place.
    It’s probably complicated but it’ll be interesting to see how that might play now.

    And I wouldn’t have written this commentary pre-EFM.

    Gary Wilson

  5. I believe the State of Michigan offered to do just that with Belle Isle, but the City of Detroit turned down the offer.

  6. Good idea. My first trip to the Detroit river, I was standing on a dock looking at the green water. An old man came up next to me and said “it’s clearing up!” I asked what color is it when it’s dirty? He said “Dark green!”.

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