Guest Column

Prosperity’s core of success

May 13, 2016
| By Lou Glazer |
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The new path to prosperity is concentrated talent. Human capital is what attracts business investment and characterizes those places with the most business startups. The places where talent is concentrating are increasingly big metros with vibrant central cities. It’s far past time for Michigan to learn this new reality.

What follows are the placemaking priorities for Michigan to be competitive in retaining and attracting mobile talent.

Metro Detroit and GR

The main reason Minnesota is a high-prosperity state with the best economic outcomes in the Great Lakes and Michigan is a low-prosperity state is that Metro Minneapolis is high prosperity and Metro Detroit and Grand Rapids are not. Take out the big metros, and the two states don’t look that different.

State policy needs to recognize the strategic importance of its two big metros and their central cities. In all the categories that follow, making sure they work for Metro Detroit and Grand Rapids should be a top priority.

Basic services and amenities

Something needs to replace the decade of cuts to revenue sharing. The state has historically helped fund the provision of local services. The combination of stricter limits on local government’s taxing power, and revenue sharing and transportation funding cuts, has resulted in cities being unable to provide the basic services and amenities needed to retain and attract residents.

If the state will not reinvest in cities, there needs to be some new system of municipal finance put in place, and that’s best done at the regional level. The current system leaves cities without the tax base to fund the needed services.

Public safety matters most. When people aren’t safe and/or don’t feel safe, they will leave and potential newcomers will not stay. This is police, but more. It includes lighting, cleanliness, code enforcement, etc.

Amenities that matter most, after alternatives to driving, are parks/outdoor recreation and the arts.

Transportation steers development

Places with less car-centric transportation systems will do better at retaining and attracting mobile talent.

We need a change in transportation funding and policy that makes transit — including light rail/streetcars, biking, walking, etc. — a higher priority and steers funding toward big metros and their central cities. If we are serious about building a 21st century transportation system, there are four steps to take:

  • Fund roads on the basis of population, not road miles.
  • Increase the funding for transit to the state constitutional maximum and, as Minnesota does, use general funds to support transit.
  • Adopt complete streets as the basis for transportation design rather than the current policy of ever wider roads to move cars faster.
  • Stop major road expansion projects.

Why light rail? Across the country, big metros have made rail transit a key component of their development strategy.

These are the places Metro Detroit and Grand Rapids are competing with for talent and business investment. They all have or are making big public investments in regional rail transit systems. In nearly every case, they have passed tax increases, with active business and political support from across the region, not just the central city.

Restore urban development incentives

The historic preservation and brownfield tax credits need to be restored. They worked. And there still is a gap between what the market will bear in terms of price and what it costs to redevelop.

The development priorities are residential and third places.

Policy that favors walkable urbanism

At the regional, state and local levels, regulatory policy — in addition to funding — favors drivable suburbanism rather than walkable urbanism. That needs to change so central cities and inner-ring suburbs can meet the growing demand for walkable urbanism.

That would require policies that:

  • Are favorable to very high densities.
  • Are favorable to mixed use neighborhoods.
  • Do not discourage — and maybe even encourage — rental residential development.
  • Have transportation designed to keep people in cities and help them move around without a car rather than making it easy to get out of cities in cars.
  • Understand that streets are first and foremost for people, not cars.

A core characteristic of prosperous places in a flattening world is they are welcoming to all. Talent is both diverse and mobile. If a place is not welcoming, it cannot retain and attract talent. People will not live and work in a community that isn’t welcoming.

This means state policies that provide everyone with basic civil rights and treat everyone the same, no matter where they are born, their sexual orientation, race, religion or ethnic background.

Lou Glazer is president of Michigan Future Inc.

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