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Detroit needs to embrace the metropolitan dream

Photograph of Downtown Detroit
Detroit Skyline

Toledo, Ohio isn’t in Michigan, but should be. I’m not just saying this because of the famous and farcical 1835 Toledo “War,” that ended up establishing that the city belonged to Ohio, with Michigan getting the western Upper Peninsula as compensation.

More to the point is that the Toledo economy is essentially the Metropolitan Detroit manufacturing economy. Like the Motor City, Toledo has slowly declined as auto jobs waned. The decline has been slower, however, as has the demographic change.

Jack Lessenbery
Michigan Radio

Toledo has lost less than a fourth of its population, and while the minority population has crept up to slightly more than a third, there has been no avalanche of white flight. Likewise, while the central city has declined and the suburbs grown, most people in Lucas County still live in Toledo.

City leaders are very conscious, however, of what’s happened 50 miles north, and very much want to prevent their town from becoming another Detroit. Earlier this week I had a conversation with two of Toledo’s more thoughtful former mayors: Donna Owens, a Republican who served six years in the 1980s, and Carty Finkbeiner, a Democrat who served a dozen years after that. They were at one time bitter political opponents.

They still have differences, but when I asked each what the long-term strategy for their city should be, their response was identical: Regional, or metropolitan government.

They said their community didn’t need and could no longer afford a dozen small police and fire departments. Were they to have unified city-county government, they said, the city would be in much better shape to bid on major national projects.

As I listened to them, what was going on in my head was both how true that was for Toledo – and how much more true for Detroit. If the city and Wayne County were one entity, it would be a whole lot easier to mount a serious bid for Amazon’s new world headquarters, for example. There would be more revenue to restore battered Detroit.

It would be easier in many ways to take something like Detroit’s new, and largely useless light rail QLine and extend it to the suburbs, where the jobs Detroiters need are located. I’ve actually known this for more than twenty years, since reading a short book called Cities Without Suburbs, by urbanologist and former Albuquerque Mayor David Rusk.

His thesis is simple and completely provable. What he calls “elastic” cities thrive; inelastic cities don’t. Elastic cities are those which have either been able to annex their surrounding suburbs, or form a regional government with them.

Los Angeles is an example of an “elastic” city that thrived by annexation. Detroit, on the other hand, is an “inelastic” city. It is up against incorporated cities and county lines and hasn’t annexed an inch of territory in more than ninety years.

Then, there is Indianapolis, which consolidated its government with surrounding Marion County in 1970, forming something called Unigov –and has thrived ever since.

That is what Detroit needs to do with Wayne County. Politically, this hasn’t been possible because the city didn’t want to give up power and the suburbs didn’t want the expense.

But we are in a brave new post-bankruptcy world now. If we really want a future with a prosperous Detroit, this is the way to go.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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