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Howes: With Fiat Chrysler investment, Detroit is turning a corner

daniel howes
Daniel Howes
Detroit News

Detroit’s first new auto plant in nearly 30 years is a go.

Fiat Chrysler will invest some $2.5 billion to upgrade its Jefferson North assembly and convert a nearby site into a second Jeep Grand Cherokee plant. The upshot: nearly 5,000 new jobs paying an average annual wage of $58,000 in one of the nation’s poorest major cities.

What’s not to like? Plenty, judging by the complaints from some City Council members.

The process was too rushed, thanks to a tight timeline to assemble the land.

That pesky Moroun family, Public Enemy Number One in the city’s campaign to correct the past, was involved.

There was not enough public input, even as council approved a community benefits agreement reached with public input.

And there are no “guarantees” ensuring how many Detroiters would get those high-paying union jobs just down the road from United Auto Workers headquarters.

Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez said she could not “commit to something that does not guarantee you 100 percent or any percent of jobs.”

There’s a reason for that. Whoever wants to work in FCA’s new plant will be expected to meet its hiring standards and to pass its drug test. That includes a screening for marijuana, despite a new Michigan law permitting recreational use of pot.

Mayor Mike Duggan says, “These are conversations we have to have to get Detroiters employed. Detroiters are willing to learn the skills and willing to go to work. But if you live in the suburbs, you are going to be at the back of the line.”

You heard that right. Not particularly diplomatic, but it’s political reality in Detroit. Downtown reinvestment, the influx of employees from beyond Eight Mile and mistrust of big business fuels hunger for clear commitments to guard against broken promises.

Under terms of the deal between the city and FCA, Detroiters get a first, exclusive crack at the jobs – second only to current FCA union workers who can bid for jobs at the new plant. Detroiters get a four-week period to pursue the jobs before folks from other jurisdictions get a shot.

Look, you can’t do deals in this town without inviting the usual carping – about incentives, about land, about guarantees, about working with anyone whose last name is Moroun.

A little perspective, folks. When FCA started talking with the mayor about the project, it could have pulled an Amazon, gone public and invited a bidding war. Or it could have gone all Foxconn – promised an enormous number of jobs in exchange for budget-busting incentives and then failed to deliver. Ask Wisconsin.

Or it could have demanded the kind of packages that Toyota got from Kentucky and Alabama, each paying around $200,000 a job. Compared to that, Detroit and Michigan got a bargain at less than $58,000 a job in incentives.

Instead, FCA made a deal with Detroit that gives its residents a clear shot at its jobs – and more evidence that the city is turning a corner. That’s huge.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. 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.

Daniel Howes is columnist and associate business editor of The Detroit News. A former European correspondent for The News, he has reported from nearly 25 countries on three continents and in the Middle East. Before heading to Europe in 1999, Howes was senior automotive writer and a business projects writer. He is a frequent contributor to NewsTalk 760-WJR in Detroit and a weekly contributor to Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor.
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