Interview with CEO Rodrick Miller DEGC: To complete overall planning of Detroit rejuvenation before fall


(消息来源:21世纪经济报道 特派记者 叶慧珏 | News Source: 21st Century Business Herald Accredited Journalist - Emily Ye)


To complete overall planning of Detroit rejuvenation before fall

                                                                                                                             Translated by Alina Dong

To Rodrick T. Miller, president and CEO of Detroit Economic Growth Corporation (DEGC), several months after taking office, the hardest thing to get used to is probably the cold winter in Detroit.

In addition to the cold weather, the new head of DEGC from the southern city of New Orleans thinks that the work in Detroit is even tougher and more challenging than in New Orleans. DEGC is a quasi-government organization that’s primarily responsible for attracting investments.

Former president and CEO of New Orleans Business Alliance, Miller has successfully led New Orleans out of the shadow of Hurricane Katrina by embracing new business practices, so that the city was revitalized. This is the major reason for his outstanding of many other candidates.

Miller talks very fast, and is an efficient worker. During his interview with 21st Century Business Herald, he said that he would finish a recovery plan of Detroit city before this fall, and in the long-term planning, unemployment rates, population growth and income levels will be important indicators in evaluating whether a city is on the right road to recovery.

Challenges in Detroit

21st Century: Compared with New Orleans, it is fair to say that Detroit is hit by an industrial hurricane that’s more intense and remains for a longer period of time. What do you think of the different paths that the two cities took in their recovery efforts?

Miller: The two cities have many differences. For example, despite a decline of investment in urban areas, New Orleans remains to be the industrial center and core city in that area over the past three to four decades. Local people always see the city as an important place that gathers a lot of wealth.

But that’s not the case in Detroit. Many people gave up on Detroit, while the surrounding areas of Detroit (the Greater Detroit area) has grown into places of more commercial, social and political significance, and gradually separate themselves from Detroit city. Over the past forty to fifty years, the surrounding regions have been trying to stay away from Detroit, and draw a line between them to become an independent region. But we know that it’s hard to have a strong area without a strong city.

In recent years, large investors like the Ilitch family and Dan Gilbert, and new construction projects including M-1 Rail have been trying to change the trend. They believe that even though the suburban areas are doing well, we still need a city, and Detroit is the city.

So at some points, Detroit is facing bigger challenges than New Orleans in terms of recovery, not only because the city is larger, but also because many people have given up on Detroit to some degree.

21st Century: Which stage of economic growth is Detroit currently in? What are the recovery signs and investment opportunities that worth people paying attention to?

Miller: Currently Detroit is full of opportunities, an important one of which is the large amount of land waiting for development. As many new infrastructure projects are in progress in the city, the land has a considerable investment potential, and can be developed for various functions.

Detroit’s population has decreased a lot in the past. Currently it has a population of 700,000, and there is still considerable room for growth for a city with a capacity of holding 2 million people. Since a lot of places are currently not habituated or occupied, we can redevelop those land and buildings, and the development and investment cost is relatively cheap here compared with other markets that include relocation fees.

The second important opportunity is talent. We know that talent is the most important driving factor in making corporate decisions, so we are also working hard to attract talent back to Detroit. Since we have enough space, the real estate is cheaper, and we are also attracting supporting investments, which are helpful to bring the population back. You know that a lot of millennials are eager to live in cities. As some major banks and companies like Quicken Loans settled in the city, they will attract the young generation and provide a good city environment.

The rent in Detroit is cheaper that in cities like New York and Chicago, which becomes a major competitive advantage. There are many opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship in Detroit, and I believe that, since Detroit’s recovery has a great need for all kinds of Talent; young people will have opportunities that can’t be found in other cities.

Rejuvenation signs: infrastructure construction and business development

21st Century: We see several major infrastructure construction projects are going on in Detroit. Would this become the most important driving force for Detroit’s recovery?

Miller: Yes indeed. A couple of interesting things are worth paying attention to, such as the new hockey arena. It will be an important construction project to connect Detroit downtown and midtown, which are the most populated and expensive places in Detroit, as well as the most important place for the city’s recovery. The hockey arena project will connect the two regions to become the next core area in the city, as well as the next hotspot for investment.

M-1 Rail and a Detroit-Canada bridge are two public transportation projects that will strengthen the city’s connectivity. Most of the major cities in the world have very advanced public transportation system to facilitate people’s traveling, so it will also become a major force in bringing people and business back to Detroit in the future.

21st Century: For the new infrastructure projects, many adopt the public-private partnership, but the hockey arena project received over half of its funding from the government, which was criticized by some who argued that government should’ve not spent a large amount of money on the project soon after getting out of bankruptcy. What’s your opinion?

Miller: There are still many uncertainties about the hockey arena project.  If you look back forty to fifty years, you’ll find a continuous population outflow in Detroit, which means risks for private investors. In this situation, public investment seems to be particularly important because if there are solely private investments, the risk would be too high, which would scare people away.

Although Detroit is at a turning point, it still would take many years to recover. Due to the lack of evidence for market rebound, many private investors are still cautious. I foresee those investors start from small projects, and it is our job to guarantee their success.

21st Century: When you were in New Orleans, you managed to bring in many large retailers. Will attracting those larger retailers be a part of economic recovery in Detroit?

Miller: An important element in attracting people to live in a city is high-quality life facilities, so the retail industry is very important. Generally, retail is related to the amount of residents in local communities.

As long as there are enough people, the retailers will come. It works for most of the time. Of course in New Orleans, we had enough people but the retailers were not coming in, because the retail industry needs to see and understand the market. So we need to do the job for them to attract more retailers to Detroit, which will bring in more people.

Overall urban planning and major indicators

21st Century: What is on top of the list in restoring people’s confidence in Detroit?

Miller: First we need a clear plan, which means where do we want to bring the urban economic entity, how many jobs do we aim to increase in the upcoming five years, and how many investments can we bring in? No one has the crystal ball, but it is still possible to anticipate the next five years. Now I don’t have a clear idea about the goals of jobs and investments, but we need a series of steps to tell us which goals we can achieve in the next three, five, seven and ten years.

A clear plan needs to included many principle key elements that can drive economic growth, which include inclusiveness (how can we ensure that everyone can have the opportunity to participate in the economic recovery), international investment (how to transform Detroit into a favorable place for foreign investments and strengthen local small and medium companies’ ability to export to emerging markets), and labor force (how to provide training to people so that they will have enough skills to get out of unemployment, and more talents will be brought to the markets). All of these are elements in driving Detroit’s development, and it takes the concerted efforts of the Greater Detroit area and Detroit city to send a unified signal.

We are making this plan now, which includes not only the Detroit Future City project that focuses on urban planning, but also a plan focusing on the economic development of the entire city in a larger area.

We will finish the planning before this fall. Generally it takes over a year to make such a entire city plan, but I’m pretty positive that the plan is very pivotal to Detroit because it is getting attention from the U.S. and the international society. We need to tell people where Detroit is going to in the future, the sooner the better.

21st Century: There are many indicators in assessing a city, such as unemployment rates, building vacancy rates, and population. Which one is more important to a city’s economic development? What kind of goals did you set for yourself? Which of those goals do you wish to achieve considerable progress?

Miller: I think there are three important indicators.  The first is the unemployment rate. A city must provide jobs for people; otherwise the unemployed will increase crime rates or cause other issues.

The second is to reverse the trend of population outflow. Detroit experienced a continuous population decline for a very long period of time in the past, and now we have to work on increasing the population, which is the real thermometer of a city’s vibrancy.

The third is the income level. If we look at the city right now, we will see 38 percent of adults and 58% of children are in poverty, which is hard to convince investors that the city enjoys a high return on investment. And it is difficult for public finance to maintain the city with such income levels.

In my opinion, five years is a reasonable period of time to assess whether these indicators has been improved. Detroit was in recession for so many years, and we need to continuously reduce the effect of recession so that we can get back on the track of growth. I believe in five to seven years, we will see great progress.