Placemaking and Politics- Like Peanut Butter and Hand Grenades

“We can’t wait until 2019. I won’t be open by then.”

Those were the words of a small business owner at a recent event in West Branch when representatives of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) informed those in attendance of the scheduled date to rebuild the main road through the city. Houghton Street, which is under the jurisdiction of the state, rips through the historic Victorian commercial district carrying truck traffic at speeds approaching 50 MPH, all in the name of improving commerce. It doesn’t work for West Branch, it doesn’t work for Michigan, and there are dozens of examples just like this in all directions.

In today’s Michigan, and in states like it across the U.S., elected leaders are failing to act where they can truly make a difference in people’s lives and in the lives of communities. In Michigan, we have witnessed enormous political capital expended to drastically lower business taxes, often at the expense of providing resources for things like talent attraction, city building and “road diets” for towns like West Branch. At a time when jobs and people are mobile, one of a state’s best assets for competing is a collection of really great places where people want to be.

Tax policy and related strategies, as has been affirmed time and again in both research and practice, have much less impact on strengthening local economies than they once did. Creating and maintaining vibrant places that draw people, talented workers and growing business sectors requires an entirely different approach—one that unfortunately doesn’t fit neatly into the agendas of either political party in 2013. So while the games of political “gotcha” continue unabated in Lansing and other state capitols, those of us who work on matters of place must continue to employ a “rope-a-dope” strategy to fend off the left hooks and right crosses thrown by lawmakers in the name of ideologies that fly in the face of economic progress and quality of life.

Funding for cities in Michigan has decreased over $6 billion during the last decade, courtesy of a state government that chooses to plug its own budget holes rather than continue an 80 year partnership with communities to share funding for services. In the coming year the state is actually projecting a $500 million surplus, but rather than direct some of the funds towards crippling cities, they are deciding to bank the money for a rainy day. Last I checked it is pouring buckets. Our state’s infrastructure, once the envy of many, is shockingly derelict. Our roads have become a running joke, many of our bridges are unsafe, public transit is almost non-existent, our ports are a mess (we’re surrounded by Great Lakes), and we can’t seem to figure out how to build another bridge to Canada even though we enjoy the distinction of being the nation’s #1 trade point with our northern neighbor. Yet despite some public proposals there appears to be no political will to overhaul the system and provide a level of funding and a strategic vision that would improve our competitiveness for people and jobs. It just doesn’t fit well into a political sound bite.

Our cities are struggling mightily. Cash strapped, in part by the economic downturn, but mainly due to an antiquated state system for funding infrastructure, police, firefighters and other essential services, cities everywhere are cutting to the bone. Nobody is exempt from deep cuts and loss of service. Some, including Detroit, face receivership. Where is the outrage?

In spite of this, there are some great things happening in our cities—real innovation. I have covered many of them in this blog. However, at some point the state has to begin to partner in a meaningful way with cities and community groups to make sure that their efforts reach a scalability that is paramount to our collective future as a state.


For those of you interested in road diets and rightsizing streets, check out this post from our friends at PPS: Streets


  • Chris Miller

    Thanks to Dan Gilmartin and the MML for articulating the very real funding problems facing local units of govenment in Michigan. It will do us little good if in addition to the kind of news that has landed Michigan on recent ‘good news’ lists and in featured success stories in the Wall Street Journal and NY Times, we are also known as the state where funding problems are leading to the loss of quality of life programs and reductions in public safety services in cities across the state. How will it look when not one or two but many local units start exploring raising local taxes – income, Headlee overrides, dedicated millages – in an effort to balance their books? The problem, as Dan articulates, is structural and statewide, and only a structual solition will enable Michigan to make “Place” the appropriate centerpiece of our growth, retention, and attraction efforts going foward.