Tuesday, May 29, 2007

How To Re-Populate Detroit:Rebuilding our Infrastructure by Akindele Akinyemi


African Americans do not have to go up to Mackinac Island later on this week for the Mackinac Center Public Policy Conference. The reason? We just had our own policy conference right here in Downtown Detroit this past weekend.

On the success of the first annual Buy Black Weekend at Cobo Hall this past weekend we have to build upon that success by turning what we learned and participated in into action. The Buy Black Weekend was brought to you by the International Detroit Black Expo.

I have heard for months from Ken Harris, the President and CEO of the International Detroit Black Expo, that this was going to open the doors of opportunity and prosperity for those who were participating in this event. It did just that. Over 75,000 people benefited from Buy Black Weekend and that is just the beginning.

I was on a panel discussion with Ken Harris last month for Freedom Weekend. Someone asked him why would he leave Atlanta, GA, where most Black folks from Detroit are moving to, back home to Detroit? Harris said that he saw the potential that Detroit had and he wanted to help create something revolutionary on an economic scale for other young people to engage in.

After witnessing Buy Black Weekend this weekend I am fully convinced that we need to build upon this success by now turning our attention on crafting economic policies that will help benefit Metro Detroit. I said Metro because part of economic revitalization is regionalization.

Buy Black Weekend was the African Americans version of the Mackinac Conference. I am waiting on next year for those who participated in this event to begin crafting public policies on education, global trade and small business ownership. The workshops were a start this year but can we take it to the next level next year?

As we are gearing up for elections we need to help those in need that a shared understanding of entrepreneurship will only emerge when we fully acknowledge that economic, not socialist welfare policies, will give us an approach to business incubation, education and training opportunities to foster entrepreneurship in business incubation or through college coursework, and opportunities and limitations affecting entrepreneurial development.

As Detroit achieve low levels of unemployment economic developers need to think more about quality than quantity; more about getting prosperous than simply getting bigger (e.g., more jobs and people). Most businesses in Detroit, even big ones, still see getting bigger as the main goal of economic development.

A new goal requires new means. In the old economy, places sought to get big by "getting cheap." In the Next Detroit, the key to success is to "get better." Policy makers used to believe that a low-cost environment was the key to success and that making investments to create a high-quality physical environment just raised costs and drove away business. That's why metropolitan areas focused on physical infrastructure, below market-rate financing and tax holidays for big industrial and commercial projects, and marketing and incentives to attract industry. The result was often low-wage jobs and companies that were just as likely to leave after a decade for even cheaper pastures.

As we are building of the heels of the success of Buy Black Weekend, the key to re-populating the City of Detroit will come from creating a path to raising wages and quality of life is in ensuring a technologically advanced infrastructure, boosting the skills of both the city's and region's workforce, creating fast and responsive government, ensuring a high quality of life - including a high-quality physical environment that is attractive to knowledge workers - and developing a responsive, efficient government. This is not to say that fiscal discipline should not be a cornerstone of government in the City of Detroit. But a low-cost environment with a poor quality of life is not the ticket to success.

Re-populating Detroit will come from shifting our focus from providing tax breaks and other subsidies to investing in the skills of the workforce, a vibrant infrastructure for technological innovation, and a superb quality of life.

Crafting an economic strategy for Detroit requires an acute understanding of the regional economy and, in particular, how its key industrial sectors compete in a global economy. It behooves all city and county government to do a careful analysis of our economies to identify and assess the competitive position of their key industry clusters. For example, high-tech is not one industry, it is many, and each have different requirements and locational patterns­ biotech is different from pre-packaged software, which is different from telecommunications equipment. As a result, it is not appropriate to have a "high-tech" policy. A region's strategy should grow out of its unique industrial structure, economic assets and limitations, and business culture.

In a knowledge economy, in which Detroit increasingly specialize in high-skilled, knowledge-based production, the future prosperity of Detroit stems from how skilled their workforces are.

Detroit should adopt policies to ensure that in-state companies have the skilled workers they need to be productive, while simultaneously ensuring that Detroit workers have the skills they need to navigate, adapt, and prosper in the Next Detroit. This requires creating an excellent K-12 school system and a workforce development system that meets the needs of employers and employees in the area.

Lack of progress in education is cause for concern. Nationwide, Traditional K-12 performance has simply failed to keep up with the pressing need for a more skilled workforce - in spite of continued increases in spending. A strong K-12 system in an area is important not only because it produces better workers, but because it is a key amenity in drawing knowledge workers. It is impossible for a city or region to be a successful in re-populating Detroit over the long run if its schools are failing or even mediocre. City, County and State governments need to do the following:

Hold all students in Detroit to high standards. Standard-based K-12 reform is already bearing fruit in many metropolitan areas. School districts that have adopted rigorous standards and are assessing progress against them have seen significant increases in school performance, especially among underprivileged students.

Adopt sensible public-school choice policies and promote charter schools right here in Detroit. Charter schools, inter-district public-school choice, and open enrollment are all tools that metropolitan areas are using to stimulate competition, give parents options, and raise the quality of public schools. There are charter-school laws on the books in 36 states and the District of Columbia, and more than 2,000 public charter schools are in operation nationwide. Public-school choice - with real and meaningful choices for parents - is critical to improving schools and increasing the supply of high-quality options for parents.

I have been saying all among that educational choice is the key to revitalizing Detroit. Young people should be in the business of creating educational management companies.

Technology can play a role in boosting educational achievement, but only if it's used correctly. The key to this is ensuring that teachers are well-trained in how to effectively use technology in the classroom and integrate it into their teaching. The goal of technology policy in education should be to enhance learning and leverage greater results, not simply increase the amount of computer hardware in classrooms and schools.

Pay for performance and weed out poor teachers. School districts must experiment with innovative ways to reward high-quality teachers to attract and retain the best teachers, especially in urban areas. Denver, Cincinnati, and Columbus are leaders in experimenting with new ways to reward teachers, help low-performing teachers improve, and weed out chronically under-performing teachers.

Build up the literacy rate in Detroit. This is crucial to the development and advancement of bringing jobs back to the city. We should all be supporting the National Conference on Adult Literacy and Education coming up on August 3-4, 2007 at the Detroit Marriott Hotel.

Detroit must lead in creating a regional workforce development system. In the old economy, most jobs were in the urban core. In the Next Detroit, the fastest job growth is occurring in the outer suburbs, while most disadvantaged workers continue to live in the central cities and inner suburbs. Detroit should build a system that matches the geography of the labor market by changing the boundaries of the Workforce Investment Act service delivery areas or at minimum encouraging the development of regional cooperation.

We can travel to Mackinac Island this weekend to build relationships, craft policies and enjoy the weather. However, are we going to be part of an annual event that when we come home we still see the same thing in every urban community across Michigan? Or are we going to have our policy conference based around action. For the International Detroit Black Expo to sponsor Buy Black Weekend it sounds like to me we want to foster action right here in Detroit.

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