Detroit's Mayor on City Changes, Super Bowl

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Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick talks with Ed Gordon about the positive changes taking place in his city, and this weekend's Super Bowl game. Kilpatrick says many Americans have a negative image of his city because of past problems with poverty and crime — but Kilpatrick believes Detriot is on the rebound.

ED GORDON, host:

For NPR News, I'm Ed Gordon, for Friday, February 3. This is NEWS AND NOTES.

Two days and counting before the big game, the 40th annual Super Bowl will bee played in Detroit on Sunday, and the Motor City is where we're broadcasting again today. We're coming to you live from the Detroit Breakfast House and Grill. The restaurant is just one of the many hot spots to hit, as the city of Detroit plays host to the biggest game in town, in fact, the biggest game in the country. Putting on the Super Bowl is no small task, and cities vigorously compete to host a game that will infuse millions of dollars into the local economy and shine the national spotlight on the city.

Today, we're joined by the man who runs the city, and he's the man who's welcomed thousands to his town. We're joined by the mayor of the city of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick. Mr. Mayor, good to have you.

Mayor KWAME KILPATRICK (Detroit): Thanks a lot Ed, how are you doing?

GORDON: I'm good, man, I'm good.

Mayor KILPATRICK: All right.

GORDON: We should note that you and I had a conversation about bringing this here. You took over the reigns from Dennis Archer, who initially laid the foundation. You for years have told me how exciting this time was going to be. Has it met your expectations?

Mayor KILPATRICK: Absolutely. Actually, it's exceeded my expectations. We knew in 2001, when I went to my first Super Bowl meeting, that this was going to be a major challenge, but I told the Committee we would have 50 new businesses downtown; we have 70. I told them we would get all these construction projects done on Washington, Broadway, Campus (unintelligible), all of the things you see have been done in four year. Really 40 months of construction has produced 142 construction projects. So it's been a roller coaster.

GORDON: You certainly understand the importance of shining the national spotlight on this city and polishing it up a bit, if you will. You have people like Rush Limbaugh who have been taking hits at it, calling it (unintelligible). Talk to me about how you see that and what you want to say to critics like that.

Mayor KILPATRICK: One of the things that I think has that ignorance so pervasive is that people haven't been here. They've taken the new stories from the '80s or the '90s; they've taken some scene that they saw back in 1984, which was 20 years ago, and they're using that in today's rhetoric that they use on the radio. And it's unfortunate because a lot of those people have huge mikes. They do it for entertainment purposes; they do it to fill space in their shows; but we want people on the ground, and the Super Bowl gives us an opportunity to give people from all over the country, all over the world, to come to Detroit and experience it for themselves. And I think the rhetoric will start to change. I mean, we're not perfect, but we come from a mighty long way, and this is a great city, and people are recognizing that.

GORDON: How much do you believe part of the issue in bringing the image of Detroit back, and, quite frankly, bringing the city back is that you really face, unlike many cities...and I've always said, you can call Washington, D.C. "Chocolate City" but this is the blackest city in America.

Mayor FITZGERALD: There's no question.

GORDON: How much of that is problematic, to a degree?

Mayor FITZGERALD: Well, I don't think it's problematic. I think that because of the mindset of many of us, we're so color struck in a country that's getting more diverse every day, this region, and a lot of us are still trapped in a black and white conversation. And we have a growing Hispanic and Latino community, a growing Arab and Chaldean, an African community, Indian community, Asian community. We need to talk about who are the best people that help the economy. What people can come in and sustain a strong middle class tax base. And image in very important to that, especially when you're Motown.

When you hear about GM, Ford, Delphi that also sticks to us. Mayor Coleman Young, who was the mayor when you grew up here, used to say that when America catches a cold, Detroit catches pneumonia. So we catch everything that you hear out there. So it's important for us to have image turnaround so people could start second look at our town.

GORDON: Mr. Mayor, you know we're about to have a special roundtable with three African American auto executives from the Big 3. But you face a challenge beyond the Super Bowl, and that really is solidifying the industry that made this town great. It's going to be a difficult task, a lot of hard days ahead. How realistic do you see that in terms of suring up the foundation?

Mayor KILPATRICK: I think it's very realistic. I think that the autos will do what they need to do, what's necessary to compete. I have a tremendous amount of respect for our car companies. I'm biased, of course, but they're getting leaner; they're getting tougher; they're putting out better products; and they'll lead again. But we also on our transformational committees are making an adjustment, you know, changing our heavy reliance on the manufacturing industry, moving into other industries. Now, we're engaged in this fuel cell economy. We just built a new $56 million facility on Wayne State's campus for this hydrogen economy; the financial economy. We're going out and getting new financial markets; and also healthcare, and all the different healthcare technology research that's being done at the DMC.

GORDON: How do you bridge the gap though because you've got a lot of unemployment in this town?

Mayor KILPATRICK: Training. That's the...

GORDON: How do you bridge the gap between now and then?

Mayor KILPATRICK: That's the biggest issue that we have in the city of Detroit. My grandfather came here to work in the plant. That's why he came to Detroit. And generations of people have done that. So now we have to take those workers, retrain them to go into a more skilled workforce, and retraining dollars the federal government, workforce development is going to be very important to cities like Detroit, not just Detroit. I want to make it a larger issue than Detroit so we can get some political...

GORDON: What do you say to the president who says to the car companies, don't look for us. He said, don't look to us for federal help.

Mayor KILPATRICK: He's wrong. Thank God that we will have a new president in a couple of years, because we have to have a new focus on that. When you have the base...

GORDON: Have you reached out to him after that statement?

Mayor KILPATRICK: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I'm hopeful that I get a meeting with him. What I can say about the president, if there's a good thing to say about him, he's been very responsive anytime that I've reached out, whether it's a HUD issue or whether it's an energy issue, he's been accessible. But on that particular issue, we've got to do something about pensions and healthcare. A lot of companies in America who provided the base, the middle class tax base for the country, cannot survive if we don't get some federal help...

GORDON: What do you tell critics who say the base that kept the black middle class alive is no longer what we knew, and generationally, we should not look for that same industrial base to help these people survive?

Mayor KILPATRICK: I think that some of that is true. But I also believe that there needs to be an alternative investment in education and training for what's next. You can't say, that's not allowed and then forget about it. I mean, you can't outsource all the jobs to China or Mexico. We have to have some base or we won't be a country. I mean, we can't only put money in defense because you can't keep fighting everybody to stay powerful. You have to be on an economic base, and the economic base is within the people of this country. And it's the least of these.

If you can raise up people from poverty to middle class, you supply the GDP for this entire country. 86%, Ed, of the GDP of the United States of America, comes from 360 cities in America. If cities are not strong, America is not strong. And so we need to make sure that those dollars...if you're moving out of Ford, if you're moving out of GM, then there must be some retraining to go into nursing, to go into healthcare, lab techs, some alternative workforce jobs that make sure people can still provide a quality of life.

GORDON: How daunting is it though for you to hear the numbers when Ford announces the people there releasing...Kraft just announced a week ago all of the numbers that have got to come down. These companies, these corporations have to become lean, and quite frankly we didn't see the same kind of foresight that built these companies over the last decade to keep them lean.

Mayor KILPATRICK: It's awesome. I mean, it's something that...when you say, how do I feel, just getting real specific, when Ford announced its cuts and said, you know, the Wixom Plant will close, which is in a suburb of the city of Detroit, we know a large percentage of the people that work in that plant contribute to the economy of Detroit. The residents contribute income and property tax or sales tax, you know, from retail and restaurant revenue. And so it's hard. It's hard right now. This is a rough economy we live in. And every time they make cuts, the city has to make cuts. So it's important for us, the image change, bringing in Super Bowls, Final Fours, all of that gets people in town so we can start to market our city in a different way and bring new investments...

GORDON: Mr. Mayor, there have been critics who have suggested to you, and you write in today's Detroit Free Press, that you see this in terms of the world seeing the true transformation that you're trying to make in this city. There are those who are saying that you're banking on the money, the infusion that you'll see here too much to sure up the economic base of the city, that it's not going to wipe away the deficit, and maybe you've put too much stock in this money coming.

Mayor KILPATRICK: I don't know where they got that from. I don't believe that this economically will benefit us that much. This is not the panacea. I've also said that. I don't think that the city will even come out in a positive position. We're spending more money than we'll make. We'll see when all of the receipts are in from restaurants and hotels, how much tax dollars we get, but we're spending an incredible amount of overtime on police.

GORDON: You see this simply as a roadmap to say this is where you need to be.

Mayor KILPATRICK: This is a roadmap. This is a transformational point that we can use as a catalyst to get the type of things that we need to get in this city because it's hard to - for 50 years nobody was coming to Detroit, and so now we're starting traffic back in. I mean, we've landed some major, incredible deals down here. Like I said, 140 construction projects, 70 new businesses in the city of Detroit in four years, and so we've done some good things, but now it enables us to go after some different type of businesses to get them down here.

Just, Ed, yesterday, I made a huge presentation to a law firm that had 600 lawyers. We brought them in this week because we wanted them to see Detroit at its best, and they were excited about what they saw here, and we're going back at them next week.

GORDON: Talk to me, finally, with a couple of minutes left, about so many people knew that you were caught in the middle of a contentious race here. There was question about the image and whether or not you had to change it and kind of reduce the hip-hop mayor label a bit. You were very frank about the lessons you learned. Talked to us about where you are today.

Mayor KILPATRICK: Where I am today is I'm much more mature, much more polished and much more knowledgeable mayor. You know, when you take this job of mayor, there's no mayor school. Coleman Young took this job at 57, and they asked him - a reporter said, you know, how long is it going to take you to turn the city around? Four years? And he said, it's going to take me four years to find out how much money these people done stole. And I use that sentence to simply say, there's no way that you can know the entire breadth of things that you need to know to do this job, and I do now. I know where we need to go. I know where the resources are, and we're in a much better position from a Kilpatrick administration perspective to lead this city where it needs to go, and I think the people of the city saw that.

GORDON: Mr. Mayor, the eyes are on the city. The eyes of the world, quite frankly, on the city, and as of today, right now, Detroit has done a shining job of showing them what kind of city we are here.

Mayor KILPATRICK: Absolutely. And we're proud of you. We're proud of all Detroiters doing great things around this country, but I'm so proud of the citizens of the city who stood up, 10,000 volunteers, to make sure that we're killing people with kindness this week.

GORDON: All right. Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. I didn't put you on the spot and say who you're going for, but I know you're going for the Steelers and Jerome Bettis.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Up next, on today's special roundtable: the auto industry at a crossroads. We'll be joined by top executives from the big three automakers to discuss the futures of their companies and the challenges ahead. That's coming up next on our roundtable.

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