Getting on board: A conversation with Margi Dewar and Mike Brown

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6941426758_0d0d924541_zThis article was originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of Breaking Ground, our quarterly newsletter. To receive Breaking Ground in your inbox, please join our email list.

Community Progress is pleased to welcome Margi Dewar, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at The Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, and Mike Brown, President of the Prima Civitas Foundation, based in East Lansing, Michigan, to its Board of Directors. We recently spoke with Dr. Dewar and Mr. Brown about where their passion for community development came from, and their thoughts on what opportunities and challenges Michigan faces today.

In recent newsletters, we interviewed Erika Poethig, Institute Fellow and Director of Urban Policy Initiatives at the Urban Institute, and Presley Gillespie, Executive Director of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation. Thank you to all our board members for their dedication and hard work.

Tell us a little about your story–What motivates you in your work?

Brown.jpgMike Brown (MB):

As a young person growing up in Flint, Michigan in the mid-twentieth century, I was extremely lucky. The American auto industry was in its heyday, and Flint enjoyed the highest per capita income in the country. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation created the Flint Community Schools concept, providing opportunity for recreation, adult education and a wide variety of afterschool learning for kids.

Upon receiving an undergraduate degree from Western Michigan University and a Masters Diploma from the University of Stockholm in the mid-seventies, I returned home to find a Flint in the midst of change. Two significant events were taking place: 1) the formation of OPEC; and, 2) international competition in the auto industry. We then began more than a quarter century of decline.

So, what motivates me is a genuine respect for the people of the City and a love for the City itself that was so good to our family. To this day, Flint has tremendous assets that are helping shape a new and prosperous future for our citizens. We have four higher educational institutions, three quality medical centers, and a downtown area that has reinvigorated itself with new restaurants, housing and governmental institutions. One could make the argument that Land Banking in urban America started in Flint. In fact, the Center for Community Progress evolved out of that land bank history. Community Progress is now assisting communities throughout the country because of some of the innovative work that began in Flint. I am motivated and excited to be part of Community Progress and its mission to reduce blight and revitalize urban communities in America.

Getting on Board-Spring NewsletterMargi Dewar (MD): People who live in Michigan’s disinvested cities deserve a better quality of life.  A resident or a business owner should be able to buy or lease the lot next door and put it to better use.  A resident should not have to live next to a gutted structure.  Children should not have to walk near derelict structures to go to school, a bus stop, or a corner store.  I want the systems that can address these issues to work more efficiently and effectively than they do now.

I am an urban planning scholar.  Research and practice in urban planning focus almost entirely on growth and development.  We have little scholarship about what happens in heavily disinvested places and what effective approaches exist to influence those places’ fortunes because people have not been interested in places where development was not an option.  I want to change that by contributing to enriching scholarship that will help us understand such cities better and identify better solutions.

In relation to blight, what do you see as the greatest challenge for communities across the State of Michigan?

Photo Credit: AndyPiper

Photo Credit: AndyPiper

MB: There are three major factors that impact communities in relation to blight elimination:

A.) The shrinking tax base, loss of businesses, growth of Brownfields, and double digit unemployment in urban centers have created a monumental challenge for cities in Michigan.

B.)  A lack of commitment and support from Federal and State government for urban revitalization, which leaves local communities with few resources to address critical issues like vacant housing.

C.)  The development and implementation of a comprehensive blight elimination strategy. Just as important as having the resources to address blight, is HAVING A PLAN. This factor makes the work of the Center for Community Progress extremely vital.  CCP was a key partner in helping Flint develop a blight elimination plan.  It has provided similar support in cities like Detroit and New Orleans.  Urban communities cannot get the job done on their own, they need a plan and the resources to execute the plan.

MD: City and state officials and some private sector leaders talk as if demolishing all derelict structures and enforcing codes will solve the blight problem.  But blight will just reemerge with new derelict structures and more neglect because these efforts do not address the underlying causes of disinvestment.  The free-for-all of housing construction at the metropolitan fringe adds housing units at a rate much higher than the increase in households to occupy those houses, so guarantees abandonment of older housing at the core of the metro area.  We need greater restrictions on new development in greenfield areas.  Further, the departure of jobs and people over the last 60 years has taken the cities’ property tax base with it because jurisdictional boundaries define taxing areas.  This means that central cities lose the financial capacity to deliver city services.  Lack of adequate city services encourages more of the households with choices to leave.  Without sharing of tax base or tax revenues across jurisdictions, the loss of population is likely to continue.  For both reasons, disinvestment will continue.  I do not know anyone with political influence in the state who is willing to address these underlying causes of disinvestment in cities.

How have your professional experiences informed your sense of the potential in cities like Flint and Detroit?

Downtown Flint, Michigan

Downtown Flint, Michigan

MB: My career over the past forty years has been in public service. I have had the honor and privilege of working with and for some of the smartest and most dedicated men and women in the public and nonprofit sector. On the grassroots level, I have witnessed the commitment and perseverance of block club and neighborhood leaders. The potential for rebirth and revitalization of cities like Flint and Detroit starts with its people, an infusion of new resources and, maybe most importantly, local, state and federal government commitment to the development and implementation of sound blight elimination strategies.

MD: I have worked with amazing people in Detroit and Flint.  They include heroes working every day to save their neighborhoods from the last decade’s tidal wave of mortgage foreclosures, neighborhood leaders who inspire others to action and give them hope of a better place to live in the future, and visionaries who can see the potential in a neglected park, a contaminated site, or a derelict historic structure.  I often feel that if only more support existed for their work, neighborhoods would be much better off.  If their efforts can restore confidence in the future of neighborhoods, fewer people will decide to leave.

What is the one project or innovation happening in Michigan today that you are the most excited about?

MB: The project that makes me most excited in Flint is the Blight Elimination plan announced by the City in early May of 2014. The City, with myriad partners, including the Flint Area Reinvestment Office, Genesee County Land Bank and the Center for Community Progress, has developed a comprehensive plan of action. The most exciting potential in this plan is to demonstrate that local government working in collaboration with state and federal partners can have a positive impact on blight.  The city, with private and nonprofit partners, can finish the job of revitalization. The real prospect of turning the corner on blight is a rewarding feeling.

MD: I very much hope that Mayor Duggan of Detroit will succeed in his efforts to deal with crime, demolitions, and delivery of city services.  He’s a capable administrator so I am watching optimistically.

What advice would you offer a young professional who cares about these issues– blight, vacancy and foreclosure–and wants to help?

MB: Dave Hollister, former Mayor of Lansing, talks about three P’s when it comes to advice for those who want to make a difference: plan, partner and persevere.

If you plan well you will work smarter and more efficiently.

If you partner you can accomplish so much more, especially in this time of diminishing resources and increasing challenges.

If you persevere you will see progress over time. Sometimes, especially with issues such as blight, it is easy to lose sight of the goal. However, if you have a plan, you enlist the help of partners and you persevere you will enjoy a sense of accomplishment.

MD: If the young professional has a degree that has provided background on these issues, he or she should go to Cleveland, Buffalo, Detroit, St. Louis, or any of the many other cities grappling with these challenges.  If he or she volunteers with interesting organizations and networks energetically, that person will find a very interesting job working on these issues.

If the young professional does not have a degree that has provided background, that person should come to the University of Michigan for a Master of Urban Planning degree where we work on these issues every day!