Category Archives: U.S. Auto Industry

Shared Responsibility for Detroit's Woes


As a Michigander for the past 21 years, I’ve heard my share of Detroit criticisms, jokes, and put downs, both from within and outside the Great Lakes State. While fingers can be  pointed at the lack of past civic and political leadership in Detroit, our collective actions (or lack thereof) can certainly share in the responsibility. Some may scoff at such a notion, but here’re a few reasons why:

  • As a nation we elected leaders who adopted a tax code and laws that advocated, promoted, and accelerated flight from cities and suburban sprawl. Many in this nation continue to support such policies. Granted, this affects every city, but that doesn’t mean it was beneficial for them unless they had scads of excess land for new subdivisions or the ability to annex freely.
  • As a nation, we collectively turned our backs on inner cities and the residents thereof many years ago, only seeing fit to reverse course when the notion of revitalization became profitable.
  • As a state, Michigan has some of the most arcane home rule laws that created thousands of 36 square mile “kingdumbs” (pun intended) that fight with each other like cats and dogs and seldom do the right thing.
  • This nation very nearly turned its collective back on the auto industry due to political self-interest.
  • As a state and nation we allowed expressways, poorly placed factories, urban renewal projects, sports stadiums, and other projects to carve up and displace perfectly healthy inner city neighborhoods, leaving a tattered and disjointed landscape.
  • Residents/politicians living in outstate Michigan from Detroit would short-sightedly say, act, and vote as if Detroit was not their problem too.
  • In Southeast Michigan, leaders and residents alike outside of Wayne County often could care less what happened south of Eight Mile.
  • One of the best interurban transit systems in the nation was torn up and replaced by diesel-belching buses that have as many endearing qualities as a lump of coal.
  • Corporations ran away from the city in the ’60s and ’70s…with some finally seeing the light of their actions and returning to Detroit in the ’00s and ’10s.
  • Half of Detroit’s professional sport franchises left for the ‘burbs with one, the Pistons, still playing practically closer to Flint than Detroit.
  • Far too many lenders and insurance companies red-lined inner city neighborhoods.
  • Shady lenders who offered inner city loans foreclosed on homeowners the first chance they got.
  • Absentee landlords let their properties decline into disrepair and blight.
  • Politicians shied away from making the tough decisions, and rhetoric replaced reason in far too many discussions and decisions concerning Detroit.
  • Too many people in Southeast Michigan acted like the city was an island unto itself, when, like it or not, their collective futures have been inexorably linked to Detroit’s fate.
  • Up until recent years, the national media tended to solely focus on the bad news  about Detroit. There are many great things about Detroit, and piling on does nothing to reverse problems: it only reinforces misperceptions and stereotypes.

Shall I go on?

– Rick Brown


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Filed under architecture, Crime, Economic Development, Featured, Great Lakes, Politics, Public Transportation, Race Relations, Real Estate, Sports, sprawl, The Media, U.S. Auto Industry, Urban Planning, Urban Poverty

A literary triumph – “Nothing But Blue Skies” by Edward McClelland

It is difficult to describe how truly outstanding the book entitled Nothing But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland is to read. As a nearly lifelong Rust Belt resident, I can attest to the fact that Edward McClelland’s newly released book simply nails our industrial heritage, decline, and hopeful potential squarely on the head. From nationally known politicians like Dennis Kucinich or Coleman Young to the everyday blue-collar laborer toiling in our mills and factories, Mr. McClelland personifies the Rust Belt like no other book I have ever read on the subject. As a Lansing native, he has personally witnessed the dramatic (and sometimes catastrophic) changes just in his lifetime. In Nothing But Blue Skies, Mr. McClelland takes the reader on a quasi-chronological step-by-step sequence of events that shook the Rust Belt down it its very core.

From Buffalo and the loss of its competitive edge with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway to Detroit’s dramatic fall from grace following the 1967 riot, to Cleveland’s multi-decade search for post-Cuyahoga River fire redemption, to Flint, Homestead, and other cities. Mr. McClelland whisks the reader through a series of events that spelled the disaster for America’s Industrial Heartland and gave rise to its current moniker of Rust Belt.

Nothing But Blue Skies is a literary triumph that must be read by anyone who has an interest in history, sociology, economics, demographics, geography, politics, planning, environmental protection, and many other topics. Author Edward McClelland takes the best (and worst) of our post-World War II legacy and paints a tapestry of images that is very hard to put down. I guarantee that you will empathize with many of the everyday folks identified in his book, as they are exactly the same as you and I – Rust Belters.

– Rick Brown

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Filed under Book review, Brain Drain, Economic Development, Featured, Great Lakes, Headline, Labor, Politics, Race Relations, the environment, U.S. Auto Industry, Urban Planning, Urban Poverty

Economic development soul-searching

The title of this post may be a bit controversial, but can also be sadly true. Far too often, it seems a blind eye is turned toward the sins of the past just to generate new economic investment. A perfect example is portrayed in the past week’s (April 17th edition) of City Pulse by an article entitled “A Tax Break Won’t Change This.” While tax breaks are being offered to GM for additional investment in Greater Lansing, a ginormous vacant parking lot blights the near south side of the city, not to mention additional deteriorated sites along Saginaw Highway on the west side of town. This case is not alone, as the Rust Belt is littered with leftovers of its industrial history – hence the nickname Rust Belt.  Is disregarding the fouled legacy of past sins what economic development is supposed to be all about? I certainly hope not.


Sadly, concerns about the past sins tend to get drowned out by the hype, hoopla, and hyperbole over new (or saved) jobs and investment. While those are important, they are NOT the only things that foster economic development and improve a community. Pleasant and safe neighborhoods, good schools, well-maintained infrastructure, quality public services, environmental stewardship, beautiful parks, inspired art, creative and new ideas, and many other community attributes also spur economic development. Vacant and blighted parking lots, abandoned industrial sites, polluted environment, underfunded schools and public services, and discarded communities are not the seeds necessary for sewing a healthy and vibrant economy. They are the seeds of our ultimate demise as a place where people want to live or work.

The economic development community needs to do some serious soul-searching and start to stand up for enhancing “community” in more ways than the perceived and spouted panacea of jobs which is so narrowly focused and aspired to. Otherwise, they/we are nothing more than a bunch of glorified used-car salespeople, and we know how well they rate in the court of public opinion.

Rick Brown

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Filed under Brain Drain, Economic Development, Editorial, Great Lakes, Headline, Politics, Real Estate, the environment, U.S. Auto Industry, Urban Planning

Western Michigan University installs solar-powered charging stations

Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo recently installed a bank of 15 solar-powered electric vehicle (EV) charging stations in one of its parking lots at Miller Auditorium. What a great idea for making green driving greener.


Utilizing the sun for recharging eliminates the need for electric infrastructure upgrades, uses Mother Nature as the power source instead of fossil fuels, and in theory eliminates the need for the property owner and/or the vehicle owner would have to pay a utility for the electric charge since it is derived from sunlight.

Here is a brief video about the facility at Western Michigan University.

Certainly, there will

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be some places that will still charge a fee for use of a solar-powered EV charger in order to recover their installation and maintenance costs, plus earn a profit – a privately owned parking garage comes to mind. The applications for solar-powered EV charging stations is only limited by access to sunlight and one’s imagination. Top floors of multi-deck parking garages, public parks, schools, vast wastelands of asphalt in commercial districts and around stadiums, hotels, and even single-family and multi-family residences.

Kudos to the Western Michigan Bronco’s for bucking the trend by employing this application of solar-power and for being an innovative trend-setter right here in Rust Belt.
Rick Brown

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Filed under architecture, Economic Development, Featured, Good Ideas, Green Jobs, the environment, U.S. Auto Industry, Urban Planning

The Hypocrisy of Chrysler’s “Imported from Detroit” Campaign

This post originally appeared on Streetsblog.

I’ll admit it: I love the Chrysler ad campaign “Imported from Detroit,” which debuted in February’s Super Bowl spot starring Eminem.

What can

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I say? I’m a sucker for hometown pride. I was born about 60 miles downriver from the Motor City in Toledo, Ohio, a town sometimes known affectionately as “Little Detroit.” I remember when it was considered treasonous to drive a foreign car.

That’s the brilliance of these ads. They appeal to our inner urge to root for the underdog, our nostalgia for simpler days. Those flashes of a grand-looking Woodward Avenue. The water tower that proudly shouts “Birmingham, Michigan.”

It’s also very telling, the commodification of Detroit. It says something about Americans’ new-found fascination with cities — the same fascination that has inspired many young entrepreneurs who are working to reinvent Detroit.

But Chrysler is selective about the Detroit it celebrates. Absent is the ruin that now accounts for a large share of the city. Invisible is the crushing poverty, constantly present in the urban landscape. The driver in the most recent installment, traveling out from the center of Detroit to its suburbs, is in control of his fate (thanks to his snappy ride) in a way few in the region really are.

Despite the defiant sentimentality of its ads, Chrysler, as well, is selective about its commitment to the city of Detroit.


Chrysler's headquarters. You won't see any commercials being shot here.

If the man in the commercial were a Chrysler employee, we wouldn’t see him pulling out of a downtown parking garage. In the 1990s, Chrysler traded its headquarters in Highland Park, a tiny urban enclave nestled within Detroit’s borders, for a new suburban office park in exurban Auburn Hills.

Chrysler’s decision was by no means remarkable for the Detroit region, where job sprawl is more the rule than the exception. Only seven percent of the region’s total jobs are within three miles of the urban core anymore. You can make a strong case that sprawl, more than de-industrialization, is responsible for the city’s decline.

Meanwhile, Highland Park has never been able to replace the tax revenue that Chrysler’s employees delivered. In the last 20 years, the city has shed half its total population. Now, local officials are going to extreme measures to weather the recession. They grabbed headlines nationally last week when they decided to stop illuminating streetlights in order to save $4 million.

But who could blame Chrysler for trying to cash in on Detroit pride. After all, “Imported from Auburn Hills, Michigan” just doesn’t have the same ring, does it?

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Lessons from Germany’s Ruhr District, Part 3

Rust Wire correspondent Ivy Hughes recently visited Germany’s Ruhr District, a northwestern part of the country recovering from the loss of jobs in of the steel and coal industry. The district includes 53 cites and more than 5.3 million residents. The region is a 2010 European Capital of Culture, an annul EU designation awarded to a city or region for the purpose of showcasing its cultural development. As such, the municipalities within the Ruhr District worked within a €62.5 million budget to create 300 projects and 2,500 events highlighting its cultural assets and efforts to reconstruct an economy devastated by the demise a prominent industrial sector. This three-part series highlights some of the structural, economic and cultural changes a region similar to the Rust Belt in terms of industrial and economic collapse is making to facilitate economic diversification. Her trip was made possible through the Ecologic Institute and sponsored by the German Federal Foreign Office through the Transatlantic Climate Bridge. Here’s where to read Part One and Part Two.

Part Three: Cultivating Creativity

Rust Belt cities are rehabbing waterfronts, adding cultural centers and creating walkable and sustainable city centers to catch the eye of the creative class, a group of individuals who place greater importance on sense of place than previous generations.

Michigan’s working on this, but the 2010 European Capital of Culture designation propelled Germany’s Ruhr District to accelerate this concept by creating 5,5000 culture events in one year that attracted 10.5 million visitors.

One of the events that garnered extensive international attention was the “world’s biggest picnic.” For a day, more than 37 miles of the A40/B1, which is one of Europe’s busiest highways, was closed to all motorized traffic so residents could walk, bike, socialize and, of course, hangout on picnic benches lining the highway. The intent wasn’t to lower cholesterol or lay claim to the world’s largest picnic: It was to encourage residents to view an irritant — the highway — as catalyst for community building.

Plenty of Michigan communities are doing something similar without the backing of federal, state and local funding. In Lansing, Mich., the regional land bank, residents and artist overtook an old motel and turned it into an art project.

The Deluxe Inn was the entry point to REO Town, a part of Lansing that was cut off from regional commerce by a highway years ago. Before the demolition, Lansing graffiti artists took over the motel, turning it into a prodigious community art project that brought much needed attention to an up and coming neighborhood. Many of the graffiti panels have been preserved and will be incorporated into other city art projects. Now that the hotel’s been demolished, a funky sign designed by area artists serves as the neighborhood’s entry point, not a seedy motel.

Using art to showcase potential is one way to facilitate change, but in order to maintain peaked interest, communities must provide burgeoning cultural centers.

The Gasometer in Oberhausen, Germany is a inspiring example of using art to breathe life into a regional eyesore. Standing at more than 380 feet, the Gasometer was Europe’s largest disc-type gasholder.

It was decommissioned in 1988 and is now an exhibition space. It currently houses the “Out of this World — Wonders of the Solar System” exhibit and the world’s largest man made moon, which hangs from the main exhibit hall and is captivating in an Alice in Wonderland-like way.

The Gasometer overlooks the Emscher River, which flows past some of the region’s most impressive works of art as well the Metronom Theatre, a large shopping center, athletic pavilion, restaurants and a landscape park.

Out of this World — Wonders of the Solar System exhibit runs through 2010 and will be followed by the “Magical Places” exhibit which will showcase natural and historical wonders and replace the giant moon with a giant rain forest tree.

So far, Michigan doesn’t have a framework for this type of cultural center (the state also lacks Germany’s cooperative atmosphere and funding sources) but Michigan’s change agents operate on an unfunded, passionate, grassroots level. Germany’s approach is more top down and Michigan’s, at least at this point, is bottom up but either way, both regions are making cultural and economic shifts needed to captivate the nomadic creative class.

-Ivy Hughes


Filed under Art, Economic Development, Good Ideas, Green Jobs, Headline, U.S. Auto Industry

Lessons from Germany’s Ruhr District, Part 2

Rust Wire correspondent Ivy Hughes recently visited Germany’s Ruhr District, a northwestern part of the country recovering from the loss of jobs in of the steel and coal industry. The district includes 53 cites and more than 5.3 million residents. The region is a 2010 European Capital of Culture, an annul EU designation awarded to a city or region for the purpose of showcasing its cultural development. As such, the municipalities within the Ruhr District worked within a €62.5 million budget to create 300 projects and 2,500 events highlighting its cultural assets and efforts to reconstruct an economy devastated by the demise a prominent industrial sector. This three-part series highlights some of the structural, economic and cultural changes a region similar to the Rust Belt in terms of industrial and economic collapse is making to facilitate economic diversification. Her trip was made possible through the Ecologic Institute and sponsored by the German Federal Foreign Office through the Transatlantic Climate Bridge. Read Part One of her series here.

Part Two: Alternating Alternative Models

Green. It’s no longer a color or even a buzzword; it’s criteria for tax credits and the genesis of a lifestyle. It’s also an industry, one aging manufacturing regions are relying on for economic recovery.

It took the desecration of Michigan’s prevailing economic driver (autos) and the Ruhr district’s (steel and coal) for the regions to recognize the impossibly of expecting one or two industries to be the economic panacea for an entire region or state. Today, both regions are diversifying economic portfolios rooted in alternative energy.

Michigan is handing incentives to alternative energy companies, persuading them to fill empty industrial facilities and hire unemployed, skilled manufacturing talent. The state has had some success, but replacing one industry with another without creating a pipeline for talent or new enterprise, could propel Michigan into a solar powered unemployment hike.

Michigan has some effective business incubators, but they lack continuity particularly as it relates to fueling the alternative energy sector. Incubator tenants have access to resources and cheap workspace but when they expand outside of the incubator, they are, in a manner of speaking, on their own.

The Science Park in Gelsenkirchen, Germany is the most comprehensive example of incubation that I’ve seen because it was developed as a cyclical, rather than a linear, business model. Everything in the park and the surrounding area   — landscape, structures, housing stock, education, talent and industry — move together. The park and Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (FhG ISE) churn talent and support business; alternative energy businesses power the park; and new companies use the park to test new products.

The Science Park sits on the former 5.4 million square foot Rheinelbe coal mine in southern Gelsenkirchen. The coal mine opened in 1929 and closed in 1984. In 1989, plans were laid to turn the area into a hotbed for alternative energy enterprise and research.

Thanks to a €44 million investment, the Science Center opened in 1995. Several energy-based companies moved into the park and in 1996, construction of what would be one of the world’s largest roof top solar fields, began on Science Center. During its 30-year life expectancy, the field is expected to prevent the emission of 4,500 tons of carbon dioxide.

The Science Park is aesthetically appealing — it looks out onto a lake and recreational space divided by a 300-meter glass lift, it’s located on contaminated industrial property, and includes a biomass park — but it works because it’s the nucleus of something much greater.

The Science Park is part of International Building Exhibition Emscher Park (IBA) Emscher Park Project, a 10-year regional plan to implement 120 alternative energy-based projects in 17 cities with a population of approximately 2 million people. The Science Park is surrounded by former industrial neighborhoods turned into solar villages; a solar power plant developed on former ore and coalbunkers; alternative energy companies; a biomass park; the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (FhG ISE) as a lab; and R&D space. It’s an alternative energy Petri dish.

Michigan is working on something similar….sort of. Renovation of the approximately 4.7 million square foot former Ford Wixom Assembly Plant is the state’s first full scale push for an alternative energy park. The three alternative companies committed to the “Ford Renewable Energy Park” — Xtreme Power, Clairvoyant Energy and Oerlikon Solar — are expected to start producing photovoltaic panels, advanced battery storage technologies and other renewable energy components by 2012.

A “regional center for jobs training and education” is planned for the complex as is some model to bring spin-offs to market, making the “Ford Renewable Energy Park” the state’s most ambitious attempt at creating a genuine alternative energy incubator. Not surprisingly, funding is an issue. The companies are waiting on additional funding for the approximately $725 million renovation.

Completion of the complex would be a huge feat for Michigan but it’s hard to imagine the Ford Renewable Energy Park impacting the Detroit Tri-Country region like the Science Park did the 17 cities included in the Emscher Park Project.

Approximately four million people live in the Detroit Tri-County area, which includes 200 cities and towns. It’s difficult to conceptualize even half of the Detroit Tri-County population (2 million people) and half of its municipalities (100) coalescing to develop a 10-year plan to foster the region’s alternative energy sector. Michigan is one of the most politically and racial divisive regions of the country and, obviously, economics is a major issue.

However, resident-driven cultural, economic, environmental and development projects are popping up all over the state and the groups pulling these projects together, are much more adept at collaboration than the spider web of Michigan’s political factions, business groups and unions.

But the state has to start somewhere and no one knows where alternative energy is headed. Michigan is assessing its assets and is taking a risk on the Ford Renewable Energy Park and for a state with one of the country’s highest unemployment rates, that’s something.

-Ivy Hughes

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