Take a minute to step outside the emotional and passionate debate over what to do---or what not to do---with Belle Isle and imagine this:
Just imagine, you’re a foreigner who lives across a river, let’s call it Swan River, and in the middle of the river there’s an island, say, Swan Island.
To you, Swan Island is just a place on a map, a place across the river to feel good about knowing what it is if a visitor asks—it’s a public park that’s part of a neighboring country, you would say. That’s it. And they never ask.
You don’t think about Swan Island as anything more than a green spot across the rippling river water. In fact, you don’t think of Swan Island much at all.
But one day, you’re bored so you cross the river for a change of scenery. It’s a foggy day in a mid-winter thaw and you, on a whim, decide to visit Swan Island to clear your head and get some fresh air.
When you get there, you see it’s a beautiful place. Swans bob peacefully on the river's rippling waters. The island road gives an up-close stunning view of the City’s downtown area, and there’s nature everywhere, a spec of heaven in the Detroit River.
You decide to go for a jog in the bike lane to see more of the island. But the further you run the more you start to realize something: this island isn’t being taken care of like other parks you’ve been to. It seems like not many people care about the island because the trashcans are overflowing and the storm drains are so decrepit that amid the snow thaw has transformed a soccer field into a duck pond.
The flooding expands all the way into the bike lane, three inches deep. You running shoes are soaked through hand through. You have to go to the bathroom so you wade through the storm puddles in search of a restroom area, like they have in all the large parks you’ve been to.
Instead, you find an abandoned rest area and a row or port-a-potties outside of it.
With cold, soaking feet and a curious mind, you decide to ask people about the park.
You ask a couple who are taking photos of the swans: What’s going on here? Why is this beautiful place so neglected?
You are blasted with a cold response: that this place is not neglected, that it is a jewel; that you are an outsider who needs to mind your own business.
You ask more people, each shouting very different, heated and negatively themed answer.
One person rants that the city that owns the park is led by a bunch of obstructionists who always say “no” and never have a plan to counter an offer with. Another person says a there’s a Fascist ruler in the province who wants to steal Swan Island from the people and that any problems on the island can be fixed by the city, not the province. They say the city, although it is in financial trouble, has to find away to keep up the 982-acre jewel on the river without giving it up.
Another person says the leader of the province is not a tyrant at all but rather a concerned citizen who really wants to see Swan Island cleaned up and maintained properly-- something that the city cannot afford. But after all the name calling and bickering from the city, this levelheaded ruler recently abounded his effort to try to help restore the island.
Another person says they are getting a group of billionaires together to buy the island and turn it into an exclusive tax autonomous commonwealth for wealthy investors and secede it from the city, the province and possibly the country.
You feel like you just stepped into some bizarre dream where passion leads and there is no logic.
It quickly becomes obvious that it’s not that people don’t care about Swan Island but that perhaps people care too much. I mean, these people really love this place, so much so that's it paralyzing. They all seem blinded by emotion and heated debate, firing off at one group or another for being “the problem”.
Not one person you talk to has a calm, comprehensive outlook on the issue. Grown adults are pointing fingers like kids on a playground. When will that fire be squelched?
Will people ever calm down and work together?
If there is so much passion, why are there not volunteer groups picking up trash? If the province cares so much about the island, why don’t they offer a grant to help fix its drainage problem?
And if city leaders are so determined not to go through with any plans that are on the table, why don’t they create a plan of their own?
It starts to rain so you get in your car, all soggy and cold, and drive home.
One passionate bombardment of arguments is enough for one day.
Back home, across the water, Swan Island is still that green stretch in the fog.
Maybe the people in that province need to see it from your angle, you think. Just take a step back and cool off, put themselves in your soggy wet shoes for a second.
Then maybe when the fog lifts and the anger subsides, they’ll be able to roll up their sleeves and use their passion for the place (which is remarkable and in many ways admirable) to sculpt a real solution and not an elementary name calling fight.
When I was a kid whenever I asked my grandma for something new she always sharply reminded me that, “money doesn’t grow on trees.”
Turns out, she was wrong. Money does grow on trees. In fact, with the gift foresight and some startup funds, it can grow on just about anything.
Don’t take it from me. Just ask Warren Buffet, the third richest person in world who made his fortune based on money growing speculation. He’ll tell you something that all investors know, but perhaps haven’t fully mastered: “The lower things go, the more I buy. We are in the business of buying," Buffet told Fortune magazine in an interview. Well, here in the Tha D, “things” have pretty much bottomed out.
And unless Detroit is the one city that defies history, there’s nowhere to go but up, up, up. You don’t have to be a soothsayer to see the signs. It’s a slow, slow uptick, but it’s happening. It’s not rocket science but it’s a science of analysis: The people who make the big bucks are the ones who see them coming before they land.
John Hantz, the successful investor who plans to buy up a big swath of Detroit for cheap, is one of them. He knows that in 40 years “things”—in this case city land—won’t be dished out at fire sale prices. No. The early bird gets the worm and it’s just a rule of investing.
I ain’t mad at him. He’s a talented guy. He’s a smart investor. He didn’t get rich by leading clients of his finance-consulting firm astray or by making poor investment decisions himself. So let’s put the emotional responses to this proposed land sale aside just look at the facts here.
Hantz has pitched this proposal as a philanthropic act, claiming that he only wants to spend millions on the area surrounding his Indian Village home simply to make Detroit a better place to live; simply because Detroiters deserve better, that more research has to be done on using urban and for agricultural purposes. We can operate under the guise of philanthropy or we can just call it what it is. I prefer the latter. So let’s be real: this is a business investment.
In Detroit there is an element of class warfare, a rich v. poor battle raging on under and at the surface and often justly so presenting a grand clash of idealism and realism given the country and society we live in. Rich people can do stuff that poor people can’t. But if that’s not the oldest story in the book, then I don’t know what is. Well, maybe prostitution is but I digress.
The Hantz land proposal comes from Hantz Group subsidiary Hantz Woodlands, LLC. The company would buy 1,500 vacant city parcels for $600,000 with agriculteral tax credits. The plan is to demolish abandoned buildings and clean up the land which makes up about 140 contiguous acres and plant thousands of hardwood trees. Trees that will take about 40 years to get to the point to where they could be harvested for lumber. Right about the time land values in Detroit will be going up.
So why are we participating in this charade? We all know what the real intentions are: to invest in the land, buy low, sell high or develop and sell even higher. From an economic standpoint this is a great thing. But lets call it what it is and not insult our intelligence. If the city council approves it, approve it for what it is and not for what it’s pitched to be. History can be the guide here.
Look back to New York in the 80s, in the Alphabet City neighborhood. It was a total slum. Now? Million dollar apartments abound there. That was 30 years ago. Look at that happened in Washington DC, in Berlin, Germany. It's the history of cities.
In 30 years it will be happening in Detroit. It’s happening now. Dan Gilbert knows it, John Hantz knows it and the ones who don’t will be crusty visionless naysayers left in the dust. Detroit is coming around, shaping to be an invetor's dream. Time and money is all it takes.
When we consider this proposal we should take a moment too look around the country. This type of proposal is not unique to Detroit. The Hantz Woodlands project may be the largest land sale Detroit has seen but it certainly is not the largest city land grab in the country.
Last year city panels in St. Louis approved a much bigger city land sale to private developer Paul McKee. The St. Louis Real Estate Society reported last year:
Despite the continued legal appeals over losing out on $390 million in tax increment financing (TIF) money for infrastructure improvements, St. Louis mega-developer Paul McKee is pressing forward on his ambitious Northside Regeneration Project. Just this morning, City officials quickly approved McKee’s offer to purchase 1,233 city-owned parcels and option on the neglected Pruitt-Igoe for roughly $3.2 million. All these parcels are located on the Near Northside of St. Louis, just north of Downtown. With this expansion, McKee will now hold around 2,200 parcels, totaling over 250 acres."
Perhaps McKee took a different approach than Hantz but it’s basically the same thing. Because St. Louis has different economic circumstances, it doesn’t need a 40-year of hardwood lot to buffer the land value gap. It’s already there.
Detroit’s top development officals plaud the Hantz land sale, happy to be relieved of the cumbersome responsibility of too much land and too little tax dollars to maintian it with. Perhaps they are lacking foresight here but right now in Detorit it is what it is. Money is tight, you get it where you can.
Rob Anderson, Director of the Detroit Planning and Development Department said the project would save the city money and was all around a good thing. “What we have is an individual who is willing to clean this community and pay taxes. I don’t see the down side,” Anderson told city council members recently.
"Rodney Crim, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay's top development official, said the land sale agreement was a good one. It moves more than one-tenth of all city-owned property off the books, adding $100,000 to the tax rolls and saving the cost of mowing and maintenance. Some of the $3.2 million proceeds will pay to demolish more crumbling city-owned buildings across north St. Louis, freeing up more land for redevelopment. And much of the ground has been up for sale for decades, with no credible buyers, until McKee. "The market hasn't addressed this issue," Crim said. "Now we have a developer who plans to address the whole area and is ready to move forward."
Last week on WDET (101.9 fm) radio, Craig Fahle made a good point. He had people call in to the Craig Fahle Show to sound off on the proposed slash of 80 percent of Detroit Water Department employees over the next five years.
Many callers were upset about the proposal and said that the city should not make these drastic cuts because people need jobs.
Then Fahle asked the million-dollar question: What is the water department’s responsibility? To employ people or to provide clean water in the most efficient way possible?
That’s a question many city departments have to ask themselves. When we talk about Detroit’s financial state, and cutting the number of employees to help curb spending, the uprising from people is that the city can’t keep cutting jobs. While unemployment is not good for the economy overall, it’s not the city’s job to keep people employed for employment's sake.
The proposals for these massive cuts came from consulting firm EMA Inc., hired by the water and sewerage department to study operations and map out a plan to cut costs. EMA conducted the study over three months. In addition to the job cuts, the plan calls for:
- Outsourcing 361 positions to low-cost contract workers in noncore functions, such as billing and mailing, grounds maintenance, office cleaning and facilities maintenance
- Outsourcing for large engineering projects and peak times
- Reducing job classifications from 257 to 31
The City of Detroit is not an employment service. It’s a service provider that should find the most efficient way to provide those services. Unfortunately that is going to mean a lot of jobs lost in the name of efficiency.
While leaders should be looking for ways to employ people to get work done, the other side to that coin is making services efficient and keeping the city afloat.
Digital Daily Signup
Sign up now for the Michigan Chronicle Digital Daily newsletter!
- Detroit Begins A New Chapter as Detroit Bankruptcy is Allowed to Proceed (1)
- Joyce Hayes Giles retires after 35 years with DTE (2)
- Sarah Palin accuses Obama of Libya ‘shuck and jive’ (1)
- Detroit is eligible for bankruptcy, pension cuts (2)
- Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and Blue Care Network among lowest priced health plans on Michigan’s ACA health insurance marketplace (1)