“Come together. Right now. Over me”

DetroitIt is about time we started investing in things that really matter.
For decades, in Michigan and elsewhere, state policies have been driven by the promises, often empty ones, of future job creation. In our state we have followed that playbook with religious fervor- cutting taxes, curbing environmental regulations, slashing wages and compensation levels.
Investments in infrastructure and quality of life amenities, as the story is often told, can wait until the aforementioned austere economic policies “create” jobs and boost tax revenues because everybody is supposed to get rich. This has been the state of Michigan’s preferred policy agenda for the better part of 20 years.
The statistics can’t support this scheme any longer. It’s well past time that we call Bullsh*t.
The days of making decisions that pit “business friendly” policies against quality of life for citizens are gone, or at least they should be. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Michigan. There was a time when state and local policy makers were faced with the dilemma of locating heavy manufacturing in their town, with all the challenges that come with it, or pass on the opportunity to provide good paying jobs for citizens. If you wanted a large factory plus the jobs and tax revenue that accompanied it, then you had to cut corners in other areas- ease pollution levels, cut taxes to the bone, accept roads that were battered by heavy trucks. These trade offs were part of the deal.
But, as they say, “these times, they are a changin’.”
If you ask a young entrepreneur today if she would rather locate in a community that has relaxed environmental standards or one with a long-term commitment to sustainability she will choose the latter 95 times out of 100.
As for corporations, they are coming to the party in decidedly modern ways as well. Voters in Metro Detroit recently passed a long overdue transit millage and much of the credit goes to a group of corporate leaders who campaigned for it because they see regional transit as vital to the local economy and as an important tool to combat inequality.
Global businesses also see great value in identifying high quality living standards as a primary focus in talent attraction, access to new markets and economic growth opportunities. The ongoing Amazon H2 selection saga offers insights into what type of place the company wants to invest $5 billion and create thousands of jobs. Competing cities were asked about their mix of housing, educational commitment, recreational offerings and entertainment venues. Transportation infrastructure (not just for shipping reasons) will also play a role in the eventual selection. As one investor-focused publication put it, “(Amazon) doesn’t want to be in the middle of the countryside where employees live in identical townhouses and have to drive to get anywhere.”
As we say at the Sense of Place Council, “Businesses need talented workers and talented workers want to live in great places.” And great places, of course, need thriving businesses.
Unraveling a half century of public policy at the federal, state and local levels is difficult. It requires people and organizations running outside their lanes to recreate a modern environment where commercial success and thriving lifestyles merge. Sometimes we do it well, other times not so much. But we must keep trying. That means businesses toting their fair share of the load, states being more strategic in their programming and cities providing platforms where it can all come together. Our combined futures depend on how well we can do it.

Dan Gilmartin

Dan Gilmartin is the executive director & CEO of the Michigan Municipal League. Through his work with communities, Dan is recognized as a national leader in the fields of urban revitalization, placemaking, local government reform, and transportation policy. Under his leadership, the League was recognized by Crain's Detroit Business as a “Cool Place to Work” in 2011.

Model D Media recently referred to him as “an urban thinker with an eye for the small, oft-unnoticed changes that can make ‘places’ out of streets and buildings.”