The following shortened blog post is adapted from my column in the upcoming March/April edition of The Review magazine. The editon will be filled with stories about how Detroit is being reimagined and reinvigorated.
Imagine your body without your heart.
Sure, maybe some fancy life support machine could keep your arms, legs and gut technically alive. But you certainly won’t grow and thrive.
So why do so many of us seem to think Michigan can thrive without Detroit?
A generation ago, nobody had to ask why Detroit mattered. Thanks to the automobile and
industrial manufacturing, Detroit was master of the universe and Woodward Avenue was the main artery leading straight to the beating heart of the entire American economy. And because Detroit mattered, Michigan mattered, and thrived—all of us, from every small city at the Ohio border to the tiniest rural village in the western U.P. Detroit’s wealth fed us all in countless ways, both direct and indirect.
Today’s global economy has made this a smaller, flatter world, and making stuff is no longer the main business of America. There’s a new economy in town: one based on science, technology, engineering and mathematics—and anyone trying to hang on to the old ways has been left behind in the dust. In that brave new world, the old Detroit no longer mattered. New Detroit is still struggling to be born.
Can the nation and world get along without Detroit? Sure it can. But can Michigan?
In order to build a socioeconomic engine that’s powerful enough to drive an entire state forward, size matters. A major metropolitan area has the square mileage, population density, economic base, cultural legacy, and centralized infrastructure to provide the critical mass needed to ignite and power an entire state’s economy. Detroit is the beating heart that’s big enough and strong enough to keep Michigan’s lifeblood flowing.
A state’s major metropolitan area is also its calling card to the rest of the world. It is the magnet that draws people and business, the face on our cultural coin. Our talented young people don’t move en masse to Illinois. They move to Chicago. The same is true of Portland, Seattle, Austin, and every other iconic cultural mecca.
It doesn’t stop there. Once that talent is in a city, the ripple effect moves out in ever-widening circles. They buy houses in the surrounding suburbs to raise their families. They vacation in the surrounding recreational lands. They send their kids to that state’s schools and universities. They build businesses and spend money on local goods and services that grow the whole region’s economy.
So the question is: how do we make that happen again in Detroit, and thus the entire state of Michigan?
Job creation isn’t the problem. Studies show that we don’t have enough talent to fill the high-skill jobs Michigan already has. Business Leaders for Michigan, a consortium of the state’s largest employers, warns that Michigan’s supply of college-educated workers could fall a million short of the number needed to meet existing employers’ needs by 2025. And if the talented workforce they need isn’t here, those employers won’t stay either.
But it isn’t enough to just promote higher education—we have to find ways to keep those college graduates once they are ready to launch their lives and careers. This is the priceless wealth we’ve allowed to trickle and drain away. These talented workers and entrepreneurs can go anywhere to make their mark – and study after study shows they are going to the hip, diverse, vibrant urban centers that offer the lifestyle and amenities they crave, and drawing others of their kind right along with them. Place matters. And Detroit can be that place.
*Lots of credit goes to my colleague, the great Liz Shaw, for this post. Do yourself a favor and read her latest book, The Lone Wolverine.