With space to grow, collaborate, and thrive, Detroit is a city unlike any other. Meet the Detroit you don’t know.
Sometimes metro Detroit’s leaders can put aside their differences and work together for the common good.
Other times, not so much.
In the bid for Amazon’s second headquarters, metro Detroit’s leaders left behind their often-fractious disagreements to produce a first-class effort.
That effort became a case study last week when the Detroit Regional Chamber chose civility as the theme of its annual Detroit Policy Conference. Most likely everyone would agree we need more civility in our political discourse; debate forums online and on cable TV often seem more akin to mud-wrestling contests than reasoned dialogue.
But how to achieve more civility? The daylong policy conference at Motor City Casino offered many ideas, from listening more than talking to giving those with whom we disagree the courtesy of acknowledging their beliefs are sincere.
I moderated one panel at the conference, looking at how Detroit’s Amazon bid became a model of collaboration and cooperation among civic and business leaders. Working against a tight deadline, everyone from Mayor Mike Duggan’s top aides, businessman Dan Gilbert’s team at Quicken Loans and leaders of multiple other groups all pulled together to submit Detroit’s bid.
Amazon left Detroit off its short list of 20 finalists, but that result didn’t diminish the quality of Detroit’s effort. Amazon got 238 bids for its new headquarters from across the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Amazon’s feedback indicated that Detroit was in the running for the shortlist until the last moment, meaning the Detroit bid probably placed ahead of 90% of the applicants.
My fellow panelists at the policy conference, including Justin Robinson, vice president for business attraction at the Chamber, and Khalil Rahal, assistant Wayne County executive, enlightened us with the inside story of how the multiple parties worked closely to produce a first-rate bid package for Amazon.
Perhaps the key question raised is why metro Detroiters can put aside their differences and work collaboratively and civilly on some projects, such as the Amazon bid or the preparations for the 2006 Super Bowl, and why cooperation, or even basic civility, eludes us on other issues, such as regional transit and auto insurance reform?
Let me offer a few possible answers to that:
First, metro Detroiters seem to work together best when there’s a specific project with a clear goal and a near-term deadline. We do special events really well in Detroit, from Stanley Cup parades to the annual North American International Auto Show. Tougher long-term issues that lack deadlines often befuddle us.
For the Amazon bid, Duggan asked Gilbert to head up the team, and everyone from the mayor of Windsor to the Michigan Economic Development Corp. in Lansing volunteered to help. They got their assignments, stayed in their lanes and delivered their part on time.
Many of those players in the process already knew each other from working on other projects. Those past relationships helped. And the fact that there was little disagreement that Detroit would bid for Amazon — no deep-seated disagreement over the goal — helped, too.
But when it comes to broader social and political issues that lack a deadline and a clear deliverable product, collaboration is elusive. Witness the years of frustrating debate over racial animosities, or regional transit in southeast Michigan or the failure to reform Detroit’s rip-off auto insurance rates.
Second, it helps to have some neutral player riding herd on all the many different participants. The Boston Consulting Group’s regional office in Troy played that role in the Amazon bid. It helped to keep everyone on track and focused on the task at hand.
Third, it seems to help that the outside world, rather than just ourselves, will judge the success of a Detroit effort. Whether for the Amazon bid or for the Super Bowl preparations, Detroiters knew they would look foolish in the eyes of the nation if their effort failed. Sometimes the fear of looking silly is a great motivator.
And fourth, it helps to get the top leaders committed. With leaders like Duggan, Gilbert, and Chamber President and CEO Sandy Baruah mandating a first-class effort, the marching orders were clear to the dozens of aides who performed the daily tasks.
Can we translate all this to issues like regional transit and auto insurance reform? I’m not sure, and I’m not too optimistic. But every time metro Detroiters pitch in together on a project like the Amazon bid, something good remains for the future.
It’s up to us to keep drawing on that.
Contact John Gallagher: 313-222-5173 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jgallagherfreep.
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