I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Detroit's Magic Bullet

A Critique of the New Red Wings Stadium as an Economic Stimulus for Detroit

My first time at the Joe Louis arena for the record-breaking victory against the Dallas Stars
last February may have also been my last time if the Red Wings move to Foxtown.
On the August 14th edition of Stateside on Michigan Radio, host Cynthia Canty interviewed Marvin Surkin, a specialist in comparative urban politics and co-author of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying regarding the private/public joint venture to regenerate the highly indebted city of Detroit by replacing the Joe Louis arena with a new Red Wings stadium. According to a plan endorsed by Governor Snyder, the Wings would join the Lions and Tigers in the Foxtown district, bringing 8300 jobs and 1.8 billion dollars to the struggling city. Surkin's response: "Gee, I wish it were true."

"Magic" is the only word Surkin can conjure for a deal that has been promised, in some form or another, time and time again for years. As if the examples of Detroit's new baseball and football stadiums weren't enough to prove that this sort of corporate logic doesn't work, Surkin provided a further example in the classic 1927 Yankee Stadium which was refurbished and more recently demolished all in the name of resuscitating the Bronx. It didn't work for the Bronx, and it won't work for Detroit.

Surkin's argument is that this project will certainly bring jobs to Detroit, but these jobs won't necessarily benefit Detroit. While the developers will be required to contract a percentage of their labor locally, a serious question to ponder is whether erecting this colossal entertainment hall will actually take funds outside of the city. As for the persisting jobs - the parking attendants, beer servers, hot dog slingers - it is clear that these are not the highly skilled, highly paid jobs that are needed to make Detroit strong. Surkin suspects that the Foxtown businesses will go the way of Chrysler, providing jobs but in the process actually lowering the mean income of those involved.

Surkin asks an important question: "Are we going to see the city further abandoned or are we going to see the city supported?" Some other important questions follow. What would happen to the people if the Red Wings had to leave Detroit because they are no longer profitable due to an investment that went bust? Do the voices of big name supporters like Governor Snyder and Little Caesar's Mike Ilitch deserve to be heard over the voices of the people? Will fancy sky boxes and special kickbacks for corporate sponsors lead to a profitable enterprise that is socially relevant to Detroit? Surkin may be "a voice crying in the wilderness," but what he says should give you pause. The future of this deal is "run down," "second rate," "torn down."

Personally, I've heard both sides of this argument. The naysayers can't see the value in 284 million dollars in public funds going to a sports team when hard working people are going to face an impoverished retirement because their promised pensions are no longer funded. Everybody else seems to think that by pumping all this money into the Detroit entertainment scene, the newly established mecca will bring people from far and wide and those people will leave their money behind. I tend to agree with Surkin that there are some very wealthy people who are hoping we're dumb enough to forget history and trust that this time it will finally work out for the right. At the same time, I believe that there is likely a connection between the success of Detroit sports teams and the success of Detroit, but the connection is a subtle one that has not yet come to light. 

Detroit will not be saved in broad strokes, and the strokes don't get broader than million and billion dollar stadiums, but maybe the hubbub about the new home of the Red Wings will make it clear that we need more research into how a hockey team can bring a city out of bankruptcy.

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