Important Findings from the Reinventing Our Communities Conference: What’s Happening in Detroit Versus Other Cities across the Country

By Martin Lavelle

In my previous blog post, I discussed some of the comparative analysis on Philadelphia and Detroit that I did before (and after) the Seventh Biennial Reinventing Our Communities Conference—which took place on September 21–23, 2016. Here I want to recap what was shared at the conference. I got a lot out of attending this conference, which focused on urban economic development. The conference afforded me the opportunity to compare what’s happening in Detroit with what’s occurring in the other cities. More specifically, I learned much about how other cities are tackling issues such as affordable housing, workforce development, and the use of vacant land and buildings. And I considered how these strategies might be applied in Detroit or compared them with what’s already under way in Motown. What follows are some of the general takeaways I gleaned from the conference. Please note that throughout the conference, several panels occurred concurrently; I’ll be reporting only what I observed in the panels I participated in.

Day 1

The conference opened with a panel that discussed building an inclusive, transformative economy. The panel centered on the idea of inclusion, particularly as it pertains to an urban economy. Cities are often incubators of growth. But panelists argued cities must remain affordable, so that their populations, specifically, their lower-skilled segments, can benefit from urban economic growth. Also, the panelists reiterated that investments in different types of infrastructure lead to better employment and income outcomes. Finally, the panel contended that the largest barriers to inclusive economic growth are ineffective coordination or the lack of coordination between different levels of government. Southeast Michigan’s current bus system immediately came to mind as an example of ineffective regional policy. (1)

The first day of the conference concluded with a panel that discussed how institutions that anchor certain communities can address social issues better and boost local economic growth even further. Drexel University—which helps anchor the University City neighborhood in Philadelphia—is taking a significant step toward these goals with its Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships. The primary goal of the Dornsife Center is to build social cohesion by addressing instability that originates from problems in families, neighborhoods, and institutions. To do this, it provides enrichment classes, community meals, workforce development programs, and educational programs for students from pre-K to college. To me, what’s happening at the Dornsife Center sounds similar to what Detroit’s Neighborhood Service Organization is doing at its Bell Building. In closing, the panelists agreed that multiyear grants don’t bring sustainable changes to communities; more permanent programs are needed to provide long-lasting positive changes to communities in need.

Day 2

My second day of the conference began with a panel that examined where education and employment opportunities intersect. After experiencing a decline in its adult enrollment, Monroe County Community College in Michigan has shifted gears in order to engage more high school students and graduates, according to one of the panelists. Its career technology center (CTC) includes an innovation and entrepreneurship center and provides week-long programs that expose students to the technology used at the CTC. It is hoped that this exposure will steer participants toward good career pathways. Monroe County Community College also offers a “middle college program” that allows students to earn a high school diploma and an opportunity to earn college credits that can be put toward an associate’s degree in a health science or STEM (2) field. (3) As another panelist shared, in Pennsylvania, the Lehigh Valley Career & Technology Center is preparing students to join the workforce in a different fashion. The center’s curriculum is based on industry suggestions made through a forum of occupational advisory committees. Moreover, the center’s equipment mirrors that of an industry setting. However, such a setup is expensive, which has led the center to seek funding from private sources. A representative of the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN) explained how it is educating students previously disengaged from school because of a major life event and placing them into service industry jobs. In order to graduate from PYN, students must earn one industry certificate or credential. To track its own effectiveness, PYN follows up with former students one year after they’ve graduate to see if they are employed and have advanced in their jobs. PYN’s tracking of graduates has succeeded because it has used effective ploys to keep in contact with graduates, such as providing them monthly transportation passes in exchange for information on their employment status.

The next panel I sat in on during the second day looked at how vacant land can be reused in lower-income neighborhoods. “Pop-ups” are a fairly novel way to use vacant space and show the space’s potential if something permanent were to move in. In some cases, truly temporary pop-ups are welcomed, while in others, pop-ups that have the potential to become permanent fixtures are preferred. MILES.CITY works with tenants and landlords to bring retailers into spaces temporarily. While in their pop-ups, the retailers are educated on how to become financially viable and how to cultivate their business while minimizing risk. According to the founder of MILES.CITY, the average length of time retailers pop up in a vacant space is around ten days. That said, as another panelist noticed, Philadelphia has beer gardens pop up in vacant spaces and remain in those spaces if development isn’t ready to occur.

Efforts to revitalize vacant land in Cleveland and Memphis were also highlighted in the panel. Students at the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative at Kent State University design projects to be installed in vacant spaces. Community members assist these students by providing feedback on the planning before the projects are actually set up in the neighborhood. The aim of these projects is to foster social cohesion through welcoming design and interactive spaces. The challenges confronting the design collaborative include the lack of resources and the inability to deal directly with the roots of social problems that trouble the community. In Memphis, MEMFix projects are trying to revitalize parts of the city; typically, these projects are one-day events that showcase a city block’s potential. MEMFix’s success led to increasing involvement from local government officials. MEMFix staff learned that revitalization efforts are more effective when the neighborhood’s leadership is strong and the revitalization efforts are close to other such efforts (clustering breeds success). One of the panelists, the executive director of the Community Development Council of Greater Memphis, reported that ioby (a “crowd-resourcing” tool) has been effective for building small-scale projects, training neighborhood teams, and facilitating collaboration across income groups.

A panel held during the afternoon of the second day highlighted three cities that have transformed their previously unattractive business climates. Philadelphia almost went bankrupt in the 1990s, but is regaining its reputation as the “Workshop of the World,” with the creation of multiple innovation hubs within the city that relate to one another. As one example, Philadelphia is turning its North Third Street into “Nerd Street” (N3RD Street). Additionally, despite its loss of population and business over the past few decades, St. Louis is still seen as an attractive area for talent, innovation, and entrepreneurship because of its strong universities, relatively low cost-of-living, and civic and nonprofit leadership. Chattanooga was cited as the dirtiest U.S. city in the 1960s, but through renovation and beautification initiatives and the establishment of the CO.LAB (Company Lab) public/private incubator and city-wide broadband service, Chattanooga improved its economic prospects. Chattanooga and Detroit are similar in many ways. Detroit is overcoming its own negative reputation through similar initiatives to renovate and beautify many of its neighborhoods. Public/private partnerships are expected to play an important role in many of these initiatives. Additionally, city-wide broadband will eventually become a reality in the Motor City. The hope is that all these efforts will draw more residents to Detroit and allow the city to return to its entrepreneurial roots.

Day 3

The final day of the conference began with stories about the transformation of several communities across the country. These stories covered a wide range of strategies that are being used to improve cities’ economic prospects. Pittsburgh’s East Liberty Development, Inc., figured out where crime existed in its mixed-income neighborhoods and hired off-duty police officers to patrol their properties, which improved the attractiveness of these properties. Helena, Arkansas, created a start-up incubator that, with the help of graphic designers, improved the marketability of its downtown. The New Hampshire Community Loan Fund provides financing to residents in manufactured housing co-ops so they can purchase the home’s land. Rochester, New York, lowered its poverty rate through investments in health care that included coordinating existing services, leveraging community data, increasing support for early childhood education, and confronting structural racism and trauma. In Minnesota, First Children’s Finance subsidized rent payments for child care providers inside school buildings; through this financial support, child care became more widely available within rural communities. And lastly, The Food Trust in Philadelphia improved residents’ access to high-quality food by providing more nutrition education and increasing the supply of healthy foods in corner stores.

Economic revitalization and philanthropic investment in small and mid-size cities was the focus of the third day’s morning panel. The president and CEO of the Danville Regional Foundation argued that the “arc of growth” should intersect with the “arc of opportunity.” He claimed that when these two arcs do intersect, poverty becomes less concentrated, efforts to recruit and retain businesses are more effective, downtowns are revitalized without sacrificing affordable housing, and leaders are developed. Also, the panel discussed the difference between charity and philanthropy: The key distinction between the two was that charity addresses suffering by itself, whereas philanthropy tackles the causes of suffering. The panel also indicated that business recruitment efforts now include expectations of civic contributions. In Detroit, the Kresge Foundation is doubling down in its philanthropic efforts to help Detroit progress in its rebound. Specifically, over the next few years, Kresge will focus on building up neighborhood capacity; creating comprehensive, integrated business opportunity areas; improving early childhood development; and promoting artistic and cultural programming.

The conference concluded with the presidents of the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta, Cleveland, and Philadelphia sharing their perspectives on the Federal Reserve’s role in transforming communities. One thing the presidents said the Federal Reserve could do is increase small business representation at community development meetings. Another thing the presidents noted the Federal Reserve could do was more intensely study the connection between income inequality and economic growth. A subject the presidents explained the Federal Reserve should strive to improve on (though some progress has already been made) is studying transition periods (shifting from recessions to recoveries, for example) within the economy and the driving forces behind them. The presidents also said they have noticed a growing disconnect between human capital development and the demands of modern employment.

References
(1) See http://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/detroit/2015/02/06/robertson-car-commuter-detroit/22988565/.
(2) STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math.
(3) See http://www.monroeisd.us/departments/curriculum/middlecollege/.