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Detroit mayor’s State of the City address recaps year of fast-paced change


On Feb. 10, 2015, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan delivered his first State of the City address at the historic Redford Theatre. Kresge Foundation President Rip Rapson offers this commentary and analysis.

It was uplifting and sobering to hear Mayor Mike Duggan’s State of the City address last night – a moment when the full import of the city’s trajectory – past, present, and future – was cast in bright relief.

When Mike Duggan was inaugurated as Detroit’s chief executive in January 2014, there was enormous hope – tempered by considerable doubt – that his administration would help the city regain its footing. As a candidate, Duggan had been unwavering in his commitment to move the city out of bankruptcy, return its elected officials to the powers and duties commensurate with their election certificates, and tackle issues such as blight, transit dysfunction, inadequate lighting and anemic tax collections, that have bedeviled the city for an unconscionably long time. After years of failure on all of these fronts, the residents of Detroit would have been forgiven for being skeptical that the candidate could deliver on such sweeping promises.

But, in one short year, the faith the city’s residents invested in their new mayor has proven well-founded. Mayor Duggan has proceeded at a dizzying pace in throwing his enormous energy, tenacity, knowledge and skill into an ever-expanding to-do list that is breathtaking in its scope and impact, including:

  • Introducing new tools to secure title to abandoned houses capable of being rehabbed and auctioning them to residents willing and able to reclaim them. 
  • Accelerating the removal of blighted properties that pose a public hazard. 
  • Intervening forcefully to try to mitigate inequitable water shutoffs and property foreclosures, and to rationalize the tax collection system.
  • Securing federal funds to purchase new buses and improve maintenance of the existing fleet.
  • Increasing the pace of reintroducing working streetlights to the city’s neighborhoods.
  • Reducing police, fire and EMS response times.
  • Introducing 21st century technology to essential city functions.
  • Embracing community efforts to reintroduce neighborhood commercial activity along some of the city’s key avenues.

It would have been understandable had Mayor Duggan gotten lost in the city’s spider web of issues and become consumed by the very real pressures of successive crises. By articulating an unwavering commitment to certain bedrock issues, however, the mayor has avoided becoming sidetracked by a crisis mentality. He has reinforced his focus by assembling a team skillfully tailored to solve the problems at hand.  

Beyond the impressive particulars, three overarching themes strike me as capturing the true import of Mayor Duggan’s first year in office.

First, the mayor has swiftly and successfully rebalanced the machinery of democratic governance.

He moved decisively to forge a strong and balanced working relationship with the emergency manager, assuming authority in sequential steps that helped smooth the transition of power following the completion of bankruptcy.

He has assembled a strong leadership team, balancing local and national talent: people with long-standing public sector experience and people new to municipal government, people previously within his circles and those he never met until becoming mayor. His team has introduced a truly impressive bandwidth of competence and political sophistication.

And most critically, Mayor Duggan has recast Detroit residents as the ultimate shareholders in the city’s rebirth, articulating a clear and compelling vision of drawing on their strengths to rebuild the city in all of its dimensions.

Second, the mayor has provided unambiguous proof-points that municipal government is capable of providing the kinds of services essential for the city to stabilize and thrive.

The mayor has tackled with an entrepreneurial mindset both low-hanging fruit and complex, longstanding problems.  He consistently asks his team – and the civic community as a whole – not whether something can be done, but how. He isn’t afraid to take risks. He is constitutionally incapable of side-stepping an issue. And his method has worked, as the long list of accomplishments in his State of the City address underscores.

These proof-points have resonance well beyond the city. We have already seen evidence of this in the keen national interest in the New Economy Initiative’s successes in promoting entrepreneurialism, in M-1RAIL’s public-private-philanthropic problem-solving model, in the remarkable mapping and analysis of the Blight Remediation Task Force, and in the sweep of Detroit Future City’s embrace of new possibilities for converting underutilized land to more productive uses.

As the mayor pioneers new methods to stabilize residential housing stock, free investment for neighborhood-based small business development, recalibrate delivery of municipal services, deliver consistently balanced budgets and countless other innovations, these lessons will find a powerful updraft in other cities across America.

Third, the mayor has demonstrated that the big ideas are often smaller ideas strategically sequenced and bundled.

The mayor’s style of focusing intently on the minutiae of countless transactions might appear to some as too inwardly focused for large-scale change. That would, however, be a fundamental misreading of the potency of his approach.

The mayor has indeed set his sights on the big problems. But he understands full well that each has to be unpacked and reassembled according to a systematic critical path in which each success is compounded by the next. It’s his approach to housing and blight, to technological reinvention, to neighborhood commercial activity. 

The truly big idea is that you assemble the parts of the essential machinery over time, ensuring that at each step of the way you adjust, realign and recommit to forward motion.

The Detroit Dashboard is the most tangible expression of how this administration thinks. It is a weekly view of the metrics on which the mayor measures himself. It’s difficult to imagine a simpler, more transparent gauge of how the administration is building to a larger purpose.

The State of the City address was spot-on in its emphasis on enabling our city’s residents to have access to the kinds of jobs, services, natural amenities and commercial opportunities they deserve. If the mayor’s first year is any guide, we can expect concrete and compelling progress on multiple fronts.

Implicit in those aspirations is a need I know full well the mayor recognizes: to continue to work hand-in-glove with a wide range of community actors – residents, businesses, foundations, nonprofits – who have helped navigate the difficulties of our recent past by putting in place a scaffolding of initiatives, ideas and investments on which we can now build more fully. It is a form of distributive leadership, with each person, organization and sector playing a critical role. As Mayor Duggan turns to the future, he can take satisfaction both in what we have collectively accomplished and the profound promise of what we can yet achieve together.