Metro Detroit Regionalization Is Still Controversial, But It's Everywhere

November 20, 2012, 10:59 PM by  Bill McGraw

When the Detroit Historical Museum reopens Friday after a $12-million renovation, visitors will see an old institution that has received a new and exciting lease on life.

The renaissance of a cultural gem is great news. But the museum that houses the artifacts of the city’s past also represents a more subtle story about Southeast Michigan of the present: Slowly but surely, region-wide cooperation is taking hold in a variety of ways that were unimaginable even a few years ago.

Call it what you want – regionalization, government re-invention, private-public partnerships – it’s happening, and the pace of change seems to be accelerating. The list of examples goes far beyond Detroit’s cultural institutions.

“I think this is the leading edge of a sea-change that is building slowly. This is inching toward more regional forms of governance,” said Sheila Cockrel, a former Detroit councilwoman who now teaches at Wayne State University.

Regional cooperation is increasing 

Some examples:

*The historical museum, zoo, Eastern Market and the Detroit Institute of Arts are flourishing after having been weaned from the city of Detroit’s operational control and handed over to region-based nonprofits. Voters have approved millages for the zoo and DIA.

*The water department and Cobo Hall are run by boards whose members are appointed regionwide.

*The Wayne County Sheriff’s Department, once confined to running the jail and guarding courtooms in Detroit, has become part of the city’s law enforcement apparatus. Deputies now patrol some streets, bust after-hours clubs and crack down on drag racers.

*The State Police, once found almost exclusively on city freeways, have been assigned to patrol the East Side Morningside neighborhood, which Gov. Rick Snyder is helping with demolitions and other needs.

* The steadily shrinking Detroit police receive help from nearly two dozen local, state and federal law enforcement agencies at such major events as the World Series and Freedom Festival fireworks.

*The city’s newest park, award-winning Campus Martius, is run by a nonprofit and funded by downtown businesses.

*Sometime soon, the area’s two bus systems – and future mass transit initiatives – are likely to come under a regional organization. Detroit’s dysfunctional lighting system could be run by a state-sanctioned authority. And despite the politics and protests, Belle Isle is probably destined to become a state park.

No one is planning regionalization

None of this is part of a master plan. Almost no politician has run for office promising to increase regionalization. If anything, promoting regional approaches can be political suicide on each side of 8 Mile. Yet it’s happening.

The reinvention of local government is occurring piecemeal, driven mainly by economic necessity. A lot of the change stems from Detroit’s long-term financial meltdown.

While Detroit’s financial problems, caused by 60 years of residential and business flight, are severe and getting worse, many suburbs are experiencing budget challenges because of the recession and the new metro Detroit reality: the region itself is now shrinking.

Once prosperous suburbs like Taylor and Allen Park are having trouble keeping fire stations open. Responding to similar problems, Detroit’s fire commissioner, Donald Austin, has discussed forming an authority that would provide fire protection to Detroit, Highland Park, Hamtramck and Harper Woods, and would presumably be run by representatives of those communities.

The Regional Transit Authority, now in the hands of the state legislature, would have considerable day-to-day contact with metro area residents. It would create an umbrella organization above the Detroit and suburban bus systems and coordinate planning for long-discussed transit advancements such as dedicated bus lanes and a streetcar line on Woodard Avenue.

Pushing regional linkage can be hazardous 

This is all a major change.

Twenty years ago, regional politicians had just begun to take baby steps on any sort of regional synchronization. In his waning years in office, Mayor Coleman Young got ferocious about protecting the city’s cultural institutions and the water department, saying in 1992, “I was not elected mayor to dismantle Detroit one piece at a time, selling off our jewels to some sort of regional pawnbroker.”

Yet the city was increasingly unable to finance non-essential services and was receiving less money from the state. The next year, during the campaign to replace Young, candidates Dennis Archer and Sharon McPhail both endorsed a proposal to support Detroit’s cultural institutions through a tax on entertainment tickets and services in the tri-county area.

That never came to pass. But Archer, who succeeded Young, fought bitter opposition in 1998 and signed a 20-year agreement with the non-profit Founders Society to run the DIA. The city retains ownership of the property and the priceless collection.

The Detroit Zoo transitioned from the city in 2006 and is now run by the Detroit Zoological Society. In 2008, more than 70 percent of tri-county voters supported a small millage to support zoo operations, similar to the millage voters passed for the DIA in August.

In the past six years, the zoo has completed a number of improvements to the grounds and opened several new features. Director Ron Kagan says zoo membership is up from 46,000 to 53,000 since 2006 and attendance has risen from 1 million to 1.25 million over the same period.

“We all get discouraged at what doesn’t work,” Kagan said. “But this is an example of regional cooperation that seems to be working.”

Some politicians in both Detroit and suburbia have yet to accept the concept that the marvelous things built by Detroiters decades ago – when the city was one of the nation’s most prosperous communities -- can be better supported by a wider funding base now that the city is flirting with bankruptcy.

In July, city council members Joann Watson, Kwame Kenyatta and Brenda Jones held a rally in the tattered Belle Isle band shell to protest the state “taking” the island and turning it into a state park. Jones compared changing the park’s status and charging $10 a year admission to slavery.

In 2009, the council also protested a proposal to regionalize the board that runs Cobo Center, even though the building was crumbling and the auto show was threatening to pull out. Eventually, two successive Cobo directors went to federal prison for taking bribes.

Mayor Dave Bing and Gov. Jennifer Granholm persisted, and under the new agreement, Cobo is run as a regional authority and is off the city’s books. With new bonds and taxes from liquor, hotel and tobacco, Cobo Hall and Cobo Arena are undergoing a $299 million renovation that will make it suitable for the auto show and just about any other convention.

“No one is complaining now that they see the success,” said Larry Alexander, chairman of the authority board.

Like the zoo, the historical museum left the city’s bosom in 2006 and is now run by the non-profit Detroit Historical Society, whose members come from all over. The city owns the building and its artifacts.

Executive Director Robert Bury launched a $21 million fundraising drive in 2009; so far, $16 million has been secured. Kid Rock donated $250,000, and the Kid Rock Music Lab is one of the exhibits that tells part of Detroit’s complicated history with intelligence and flair.

The museum re-opens at 9:30 a.m. Friday and will remain open for the next 55 1/2 hours, until 5 p.m. Sunday. Detroit-themed movies will be shown during the wee hours both nights. It will be interesting to see who shows up for the 2:30 a.m. showing of “8 Mile.” Admission is free until further notice.

Detroit’s history museum is only the most recent showplace for what happens when an old institution is opened to new sources of funding, management and creativity. It is not likely to be the last.

It's uncertain where regionalization could end. Will economics force the wide-scale merging of cities, or, say, countywide police or fire departments? That sounds far-fetched, but so did an autonomous DIA 20 years ago.  

Vince Keenan, a Detroiter and voter-education activist, said the model of a fragmented metro area needs to be reconsidered.

 "One thing is for sure," Keenan said, “cities as we have known them are going to change. What comes next is still up in the air."

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