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Published: Thursday, 3/28/2013

Motown’s road ahead

Kevyn Orr flanked by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. Kevyn Orr flanked by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.
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Detroit faces an immediate financial crisis, but its long-standing problems run far deeper than its deficits. As the new emergency financial manager, Kevyn Orr, works to keep Detroit solvent, municipal leaders cannot ignore the broader problems that continue to erode the city’s population and tax base.

Motown’s staggering $14 billion in long-term debt, including pension and health-care obligations, and accumulated annual deficit of more than $300 million could easily consume the city.

The appointment of an emergency manager, while necessary, comes at a great cost: self-government and sovereignty. The takeover of this mostly African-American city means that most of Michigan’s black residents live under an emergency manager, with no real say in how their local government operates.

Losing self-government has understandably angered and disturbed many Detroiters. That mistrust won’t make Mr. Orr’s job easier. As a state-appointed manager, Mr. Orr, a bankruptcy lawyer, will have the power to modify labor contracts and sell city assets, with the consent of the governor and state treasurer.

But Detroit’s leaders must look farther down the road. The city’s problems started long before its financial crisis. Its decline began in the 1950s, when Detroit had nearly 2 million people.

Since then, its population has dropped to about 700,000. In recent years, middle- and working-class African-Americans have made up much of that exodus, which amounts to about 15,000 people a year, or 25 percent of the population since 2000.

Detroit has become one of the nation’s poorest big cities. Nearly half of its households — and more than half of its children — live in poverty. About one-third of the city is empty, with wide swaths of blighted and vacant land.

Urban problems of decline and decay are not unique to Detroit. Every large central city in the nation, including Toledo, faces them. But the sheer magnitude of Detroit’s decline has made its problems almost unmanageable and, for many residents, intolerable.

Aside from short-term fiscal fixes, Detroit must have a long-term strategy for retaining its population, tax base, and businesses. It must build on the energy and creativity that are sparking a revival downtown, as well as in other sections of the city.

Scarce resources will make that task especially hard, but it’s encouraging that Mr. Orr has made maintaining and improving city services a priority. Still, Mr. Orr’s tenure will be brief. It’s more important that Mayor Dave Bing and other Detroit leaders continue to work to make the city a more attractive place to live.

The so-called Detroit One public safety program, announced by Mayor Bing last week, will use the Michigan State Police and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives to help patrol the city. It has a specific, if ambitious, goal: to reduce the number of gun-related violent crimes by 25 percent this year.

In another encouraging sign, a coalition of private businesses, including Detroit’s automakers, will donate police and emergency vehicles, and offer other financial aid. That’s good news for a city that reported nearly 400 homicides last year — the highest rate in two decades.

Detroiters must feel safe on their streets and confident in their public schools, or more of them will leave. Street lights must stay on, garbage must be picked up, buses must provide a reliable way to get to work and school. Art and entertainment venues must continue to thrive.

While it deals with an immediate financial crisis, the city must find ways to keep the people and businesses that will drive Detroit’s future.



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