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Signs of renewal amid Detroit's rubble Add to ...

These are stories Report on Business followed this week.

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The Harvard Business Review this week takes a devastating, yet strangely uplifting, look at Detroit, poking beneath the rubble for signs of renewal even as the city begins the arduous process of bankruptcy.

“The main point of a bankruptcy – especially this bankruptcy, which has been looming for decades – is to get a fresh start,” writes Justin Fox, executive editor of the Harvard Business Review Group.

“So it’s been dismaying to see how little attention has been paid in the past week’s news coverage to the fact that central Detroit is already in the midst of a fresh start, a revitalization that feels far more organic and durable than past top-down efforts like the construction of the Renaissance Center in the late 1970s and the arrival of casinos in the late 1990s (although the casinos do appear to pay the bulk of the city’s bills at the moment).”

To recap, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder just over a week ago authorized Detroit’s emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, to put the ailing city under, marking the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Mr. Orr and his city colleagues now face a protracted, pitched battle with creditors, unions and pension funds, with the eyes of the nation upon them amid fears that other municipalities could follow suit, depending on how this plays out.

Wall Street analyst Meredith Whitney, for example, this week cited the troubles of many other U.S. cities, while David Rosenberg, the chief economist of Gluskin Sheff + Associates, warned that “Detroit is only the opening act even if its problems are unique to a city in secular decline and dilapidation.”

Mr. Orr and Mr. Snyder, in turn, headed to New York this week to spread their gospel.

“Before, people didn’t know where the bottom was and to invest was scary,” Mr. Snyder told The Financial Times during his visit.

“Now we can say it is at the bottom and Detroit is a value investment.”

The bankruptcy followed years of a declining population – from 1.8 million in the 1950s to just 700,000 today – and years of neglect.

Now, you’ve got to wait an hour for police to respond, about half of the street lights don’t work, just one-third of the city’s ambulances are actually road-worthy and, with the exodus, Detroit is haunted by the ghosts of 78,000 abandoned buildings.

“Those left behind are increasingly those who can’t get out – with a per capita income of just $15,261 and 36.2 per cent of the population below the poverty line, Detroit is now by most measures the poorest big city in the country,” writes Mr. Fox, who poked around Detroit during a visit for a conference in the fall.

But amid the wreckage, much work has already been done by private businesses and other interests to try to get the city back on its feet. Their restructuring began years ago.

“Decrepit buildings in downtown and midtown are being renovated and converted into loft apartments, hotels, restaurants, and offices,” says Mr. Fox.

“Compuware and Quicken Loans have moved their headquarters and thousands of employees from the suburbs to the city,” he writes on the Harvard Business Review website.

“There’s an incipient venture capital and start-up scene, and lots of small creative businesses. The area’s pro sports teams are almost all back downtown. Young, upwardly mobile people are actually moving to Detroit.”

Eddie Francis, the mayor of Detroit’s Canadian neighbour, Windsor, Ont., said something similar in an interview, citing the restructuring that began in areas like industry, tourism and the arts around 2006.

To be sure, nobody is under any illusions about the massive task ahead.

But Mr. Fox’s point is that Detroit has started down a new path, without any formula for reconstruction, and “that’s exciting.”

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Follow on Twitter: @michaelbabad

 
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