Detroit Mayor Dave Bing On City's Crisis

Bing is facing a massive financial crisis and population plunge in Detroit. He's also trying to avoid a state takeover of the city. The former businessman and NBA star speaks with host Michel Martin about what it takes to transform the city.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Today we thought we'd take you on a little trip with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEVROLET COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, it appears that everybody's ready and into the spacious luggage compartment with the bags.

MARTIN: This 1940's commercial for Chevrolet will give you a sense of where we are. That's right, we're in Detroit. We continue to return to Detroit because it's one of the places that helped transform American life. It was a place where people from all different races and backgrounds could earn a good paycheck, buy their own homes and cars. Large scale manufacturing, union power, a strong middle class and the music that became the soundtrack for American life all can claim roots in Motown.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCING IN THE STREET")

MARTHA REEVES: Calling out around the world are you ready for a brand new beat? Summer's here and the time is right for dancing in the streets...

MARTIN: Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were just one of the many successful acts that took the Motown sound to a national audience, and yet in the latter part of the 20th century Detroit like many American cities would see it's share of challenges bringing a grittier soundtrack to the city - like the rapper Eminem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

EMINEM: (Unintelligible).

MARTIN: Still, in the State of the Union address last week, President Obama talked about the renaissance city as an inspiration for the rest of the country to jumpstart American manufacturing.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What's happening in Detroit can happen in other industries. It can happen in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Raleigh.

MARTIN: Later in this special broadcast from Detroit we will speak with Dan Gilbert. You might know him as the founder and CEO of Quicken Loans, the country's largest online home lender, or you might know him as the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers. But what you might not know is that he has invested tens of millions of dollars in downtown Detroit and we will find out why in a few minutes. But we begin the program today with the mayor of Detroit, Dave Bing.

He's a former basketball star and a successful businessman who has made it his mission to try to lead the city's revival. To do that he has to confront the challenges that Detroit continues to face including a massive financial crisis that could lead to a state takeover if the economic situation in the Motor City does not stabilize soon. So, we're pleased to start the program today with the mayor of Detroit, Dave Bing, and we are both here in member station WDET in Detroit.

Mr. Mayor thank you so much for joining us. Welcome back to the program.

MAYOR DAVE BING: Well, thank you, my pleasure being here.

MARTIN: You know, obviously we want to talk to you about your vision but we do have to face the critical issues the city is facing now. I mean, the headlines are dire. The cuts that are being proposed by you or the city council are draconian by any measure, you know, firing thousands of employees. You're in the middle of negotiating, you know, givebacks or trying to get givebacks from city unions. I just want to ask you just before we start what do you think of the mood of the city is right now?

BING: Well, I think there's a reality that's finally set in. I think for so long people thought things were always going to be as they were and as we get into the financial straits that we're in today and you constantly tell people we must change, we can't continue like we did in the past. You know, people didn't believe it initially. They have been lied to I think and now that you're telling them the truth you have to do it over and over again, and so when we tell people you have to change people would constantly say, well, I agree with you there needs to be change but I don't want to be impacted by the change.

MARTIN: This maybe a question that might seem ridiculous here but I think it is a question that perhaps other people are asking, that there are other cities in Michigan who are under emergency management. Their finances are essentially being run by the state and I think the question some people might ask is what's so terrible about that?

BING: Well, I think and cities are - we are a home ruled city and we as elected officials were elected by our population to manage the city. And when you take that away and that has happened to us on two different occasions, not so much with city government but within our school system, and our school system has been under emergency managers for the last three years almost four years now, and a lot of people don't feel that that's the democratic process working as it should work.

MARTIN: What impact though have you seen in the schools or having the schools under emergency management? That's kind of your focus group for now?

BING: Well, what I think it's done it's elevated a lot of the inefficiencies and there are changes that are happening they're moving slow, but there's always a negative impact on people. And what we don't realize is that whether it's the education system or municipal government, we're not job creators and too many people look at the school system and city government as a place of employment, and we are way, way too heavy on the employment side and we've been that way for a long time and all of a sudden we find ourselves in a situation where we have to cut, and you're cutting a lot of people. And it really has a negative impact on the person and his or her family, but it's something that has to happen otherwise you go out of business.

MARTIN: We are speaking with the Mayor of Detroit Dave Bing. He's joined us here at WDET for our special broadcast from Detroit. You know, on the plus side, President Obama has been praising Detroit to the skies during his State of the Union speech. Recently, he's been talking about the turnaround in the auto industry; that GM has regained its place as the top auto seller in the world and he says that other industries can be revived.

Are you feeling any of that here? Is any of that helping the situation of the city?

BING: It's not helping in the city itself right now. General Motors as one of our largest employers in the city - Chrysler also is here. A lot of their plants are not in the city. They are around the state of Michigan or in the Midwest. So from a Detroit perspective, outside of headquarters being here we don't see and are benefiting from the resurgence in the automotive industry. But I want to say emphatically that if the president had not done what he did in support of both Chrysler and General Motors our country would have lost millions of jobs and, you know, the technology in that particular industry allows us to put our foot in a lot of the different industries around the globe.

MARTIN: Well, what would make a difference for Detroit?

BING: Well, the greatest thing that could happen for us would be job creation and I think my job is to not create jobs but to create the environment for jobs, and I think that's where Dan Gilbert is just a great asset to our city. He's come downtown. He's looked at old buildings that he's been able to refurbish. He's made some I think some very masterful moves in terms of not only his commitment to the city but bringing along with the buildings that he's buying and renovating, he's bringing business back to downtown.

And so, a big problem that he's presenting for me - which is a good problem - is making sure I've got affordable housing for a lot of the people that are now working downtown and I hope that he continues to do what he's doing because in the end it will definitely help our city.

MARTIN: Well, I understand that you're in the thick of it as we said that you are in the middle of trying to stabilize Detroit's finances, trying to stave off estate takeover, but I did want to ask if you think that there is something that other cities can learn from some of the things that you've gone through here and are going through now?

BING: Well, I think the first thing you've got to do is be transparent. You've got to tell people the truth, as bad as it may be. And when I came into office I came into office with a $330 million accumulated deficit over time. So, I had a financial crisis day one when I walked into the office. And so trying to let people know how dire the situation is because most people look back and say, you know, I remember the good old times. Well, the good old times are the good old times. They're not coming back. We've got to do something altogether different.

So we've got to, I think, make a total transformation in terms of what our city was, in terms of where we want it to go. And so we can't be as dependent on the one industry that we were so dependent upon.

So now, we're being much more open to other industries coming in, being supportive. We've got some areas where there is growth, but the reality is this. The Midwest, Michigan and Detroit in particular, are still going to be very dependent upon the automotive industry, but there are a lot of industries that are dependent on this industry and we've got to start, I think, making sure we get into those industries.

MARTIN: If you and I were to get together five years from now - but I hope it'll be sooner than that - but if we were to get together five years from now and talk about the city, what will we be talking about? What kind of conversation are we going to be having?

BING: We would talk about how the city has come back. You know, nobody thought that General Motors or Chrysler, two of the largest corporations on the globe, would go bankrupt. They did and they changed. They transformed themselves, and in a very short period of time they came out of bankruptcy and now they are profitable companies that are starting to grow again.

That's the way Detroit's going to be. We have to look at ourselves a little differently. We're not New York. We're not L.A. We're not Chicago, but we are Detroit and we've got to understand, I think, what our strengths are and we've got to build upon our strengths. We can't be something that we are not prepared to be.

So I think our downtown is leading the way. Midtown is coming back very strong, but what's been missing over the last several administrations in the last several years is the investment into the neighborhoods where our people live. So we've lost a lot of our population. Our population has moved to the suburbs and we've got all of this vacancy, both in terms of housing and in terms of land. And so we've got to make some hard decisions once again on making sure that the people who are here, we have to give them the kind of respect - we have to give them the kind of services that they pay for. And it's my job to get that started.

MARTIN: And very, very briefly, if you would, you know, there was a time when, if you said Detroit, you'd think cars, you'd think Motown. If you and I get together five, 10 years from now and I say, Detroit, what word is going to come to mind?

BING: You still - I don't think we're going to get away from that. Those are still our roots. We've still got an unbelievable amount of talent in the automotive world. We've still got an unbelievable amount of talent in the music world, and so from a culture standpoint, it's no longer the Motown sound, but it's a lot of gritty stuff that's out there right now and we have to accept that because the talent is here.

MARTIN: The Detroit sound?

BING: Absolutely.

MARTIN: Will that do it for you?

BING: That will do it.

MARTIN: The Detroit sound. OK.

BING: That will do it.

MARTIN: Dave Bing is the mayor of Detroit. He was kind enough to join us here in studio at WDET in Detroit. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for joining us.

BING: Thank you so much for having me. Appreciate it.

MARTIN: And as we mentioned, businessman Dan Gilbert owns the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team, but he's also a Detroit native who's investing heavily in his hometown to try to make it a winner once again. We will hear from him just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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