Michigan Needs to Follow Lead of Other States in Helping Cities Thrive

Posted on May 31, 2019 by Dene Westbrook

A wide-angle shot of the municipal finance panel discussion during the 2019 Mackinac Policy Conference.

(Watch the full panel discussion here. Note: Conversation starts around the 4-minute mark.)

Around the country, states are taking steps to help their cities thrive – and are being rewarded for those steps with economic and population growth.

But Michigan ranks dead last in the nation when it comes to investing in its cities, Brookings Institution Vice President and Director of Metropolitan Policy Project Amy Liu told business leaders gathered on Mackinac Island for the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual Mackinac Policy Conference. Liu was part of a panel for the session called “Activate Change: Investing in Local Communities.”

The result of Michigan’s disinvestment is shown in our state’s deteriorating community infrastructure. And it’s shown in the fact that Michigan’s population has remain stagnant around 10 million people for the last 20 years. If Michigan had kept up with the rest of the nation its population should be closer to 14 million.

Amy Liu of the Brookings Institution during the May 29 panel discussion.

While other states are helping its cities thrive, in Michigan policymakers – lawmakers and governors – for decades have cut state support for cities and limited opportunities for local revenue growth. The result: Michigan communities are focused on merely providing basic fundamental services and they are unable to make strategic investments into the services that today’s talent and businesses want – quality police and fire protection, walkable streets and neighborhoods, parks, public transit, senior services and much more. These are the services that attract people, particularly today’s talent seeking employment in the well-paying knowledge economy.

So which states are helping cities thrive? Liu named Alabama as the state that provides the most state support for its cities. She also noted that Arizona has given communities and regions a lot freedom to see support from voters for additional revenues.

“Around the country, Republican governors and legislators are giving more flexibility to regions and communities. And Michigan needs to join them,” Liu said.

Event panelist Ridgway White, president of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, said often communities are told their problems were due to poor management or poor planning.

But U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, who moderated the panel, replied it was hard to manage one’s way through issues, “when you don’t have the money to mow the park.”

Panelists from left Amy Liu, Michael McGee and Ridgway White.

Kildee added having thriving cities in Michigan is only likely to happen if the business community asks lawmakers they support to step up and recognize the value of cities in attracting talent and creating growth.

As Michael McGee, CEO of law firm Miller Canfield Paddock and Stone, a panelist giving the business viewpoint, noted “talent goes where it’s welcome, and stays where it’s treated well.”

Unless we start giving cities the capability of providing the amenities young college grads want, our communities will not prosper – and neither will our state.

The May 29 panel session, called “Activate Change: Investing in Local Communities,” was sponsored by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. It was moderated Kildee and featured panelists Ridgway White, President and CEO of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation; Michael McGee, CEO of Miller Canfield, Paddock and Stone; and Amy Liu, Vice President and Director of the Metropolitan Policy Program, Adeline M. and Alfred I. Johnson Chair in Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institution.

Read more about the panel discussion here on our SaveMICity blog.

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