"In a sense, we are all Detroiters."
That was a comment made this week by George W. Jackson Jr., a Detroit business booster who addressed a breakfast meeting of the Howell Area Chamber of Commerce.
Jackson, a former Detroit Edison marketing executive, heads the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., a private, nonprofit organization at the center of a lot of the revitalization efforts in the state's largest city.
Jackson's organization is sort of a parallel government in a city plagued by bureaucracy, inefficiency, incompetence and a strong scent of corruption. Rather than continue to fight the roadblocks at city hall, the economic development group finds ways to circumvent them.
There has been some success. Streetscapes have been refreshed, storefronts have gone through extensive renovation, residential and business districts have developed and the historic and virtually abandoned Book Cadillac hotel reopened last year after a $200 million renovation as the Westin Book Cadillac Detroit.
Some of the progress has been the long-overdue demolition of eyesores to make way for new projects. The Book Cadillac itself was a possible demolition target before a Cleveland developer came in to invest in the restoration of a 453-room hotel, topped by 66 condos. Blight is still a problem, but Jackson says now that most of the city's blight is privately owned rather than city-controlled property.
Jackson hopes to see a continuation of young professionals and baby boomers with higher-than-average incomes moving into various downtown pockets. He says outsiders — such as the Cleveland developer — are seeing the value in investing in Detroit.
Jackson is part of a group that works with other regional leaders — including Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, often unfairly cast as the bad guy in these discussions — to produce regional solutions.
Jackson is also optimistic about the administration of new Mayor Dave Bing, the former professional basketball player who turned into a successful Detroit businessman before running for mayor. Jackson says Bing will bring integrity and solid business credentials to city hall.
That said, Jackson said we in Michigan are too negative when it comes to Detroit. Downtown has many attractive features, drawing 5.6 million entertainment visitors a year. Despite the city's reputation for crime, Jackson said FBI statistics show the city is safer than many other large cities in the United States.
In Livingston County, we need to pay attention to Jackson. The region is defined to outsiders by Detroit. As Jackson says, outside of our immediate area, the Detroit brand is far more recognizable than the Michigan brand.
That brand needs to be a positive one. If Detroit is vital, then the entire region benefits. It's encouraging to see a Detroit leadership that appears to want to work with the rest of the region, rather than demonizing it.