With Detroit in Dire Straits, Mayor Invites Big Thinking

Krissah Thompson, Washington Post, February 8, 2011

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But his [Mayor Dave Bing’s] eyes were focused on the grim details of the city’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. Page 25: The annual budget is in the hole by $155 million. Page 28: Long-term debt has climbed to $5.7 billion. Bing tapped the 237-page document with his index finger, number after daunting number.

“When I was elected, I thought I knew what was going on, but I got here and found out [that] in the short term, things were way worse than I ever imagined,” Bing said. “Financially. Ethically. From a policy standpoint. We were on the brink of a financial calamity.”

{snip} Bing has issued an open invitation: anyone with a proposal, plan, theory–a notion, even–is welcome to try to save his crumbling city.

Numerous outfits have responded, turning Detroit into the new New Orleans–a giant testing ground for urban planners and developers.

There is an urban farming proposal, which would turn over whole sections of the city to corporate farming operations. Many of the country’s leading foundations, including Kresge, Ford, Rockefeller, Kellogg, Skillman and Knight, are funding arts, education and development projects.

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Bing announced a plan on Monday to encourage city police officers and firefighters to live in Detroit as a way of bolstering neighborhoods. Using federal dollars and deals with local banks, the city would offer homes for as little as $1,000.

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The mayor has, so far, made no commitments. At this point, he just wants residents to face facts. Such as: He cannot afford to send water, garbage trucks and other services to large parts of his city. And: There are so few ambulances that some people have been transported in city-owned sedans. Plus: Last summer, the wheels and rims were stolen off Bing’s GMC Yukon security vehicle and it was left on blocks.

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Sense of urgency

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During a recent trip to Washington to attend the winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Bing sat near the front of the room as retiring Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley passed along wisdom gained during his 22 years in office. “The idea that we come down to Washington, and they have all this money, it’s wrong,” Daley said. “Those days are over.”

Bing clapped ‘amen’ to that, but he continues to pursue federal programs that could benefit Detroit. “As much as we can get–always ,” he said.

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Creating a plan

Late last year, Bing held his first round of community listening sessions for his Detroit Works Project, which will eventually produce a master plan for the city. There was a lot of yelling and many questions about whether people would be forced to move out of their homes if their neighborhoods are shuttered. Bing promises no forced relocation.

But memories remain of two black neighborhoods, Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, that were demolished when the city built the Chrysler Freeway.

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