Detroit Activists Put Forth Ballot Measure To Require Community Input in Development Projects Tired and unhappy with the city's actions, a group of Detroit activists put a measure on the ballot that would require large project developers to negotiate a binding agreement with the community.
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The Business Ballot Battle Creating A Wedge Among Detroit Voters

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The Business Ballot Battle Creating A Wedge Among Detroit Voters

The Business Ballot Battle Creating A Wedge Among Detroit Voters

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Americans' trust in the federal government is just about the lowest it's been in 40 years. In Detroit, some residents distrust their local elected officials, too, so much so that they're trying to take some power back with a ballot measure next week. Shelby Jouppi of member station WDET reports.

SHELBY JOUPPI, BYLINE: Emma Lockridge lives next door to an eight-lane highway and one of the largest industrial operations in Michigan, the Marathon oil refinery in Detroit.

EMMA LOCKRIDGE: It's a horrible odor that overwhelms and blankets the community. And you wake up coughing and gagging. I often tell people I don't live near a refinery, I live in a refinery.

JOUPPI: According to the census, Detroit is the poorest major city in the U.S. It's wrestled with a high foreclosure rate and unemployment. And three years ago, the city filed the nation's largest municipal bankruptcy. It has desperately sought to draw in businesses to develop its barebones land, to create both tax revenue and jobs.

Over the years to encourage this, the city has offered millions of dollars in tax breaks to huge companies like Marathon. But it hasn't always panned out.

LOCKRIDGE: I know Detroit was broke, but they basically sold out our community. The homes are worthless. We can't move out. We're trapped.

JOUPPI: Lockridge and others think when it comes to these big business deals, the city should have fought better for the community's needs. So a coalition called Rise Together Detroit put a proposal before voters that would change that. The law would require developers seeking tax incentives for large projects to negotiate benefits like jobs or environmental protections with a handful of residents from the area around the project without the city's oversight. Together, the developer and residents would sign a contract called a community benefits agreement.

Armando Carbonell is a senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy. He says while other cities have been trying individual agreements...

ARMANDO CARBONELL: I'm not aware of anything on quite the level of what's being considered in Detroit.

JOUPPI: In places like New York and Los Angeles, some developers of large projects like sports arenas have already been doing this voluntarily to avoid controversy.

Business Leader Sandy Baruah of the Detroit Regional Chamber says requiring some developers to enter into these agreements would have a chilling effect and end up costing residents more jobs.

SANDY BARUAH: It puts the steering wheel of development in the hands of unelected, unaccountable, very amorphous community groups. I know very few businesses that would allow that to happen.

JOUPPI: Detroit City Councilman Scott Benson says he understands the sentiment behind this ballot measure, but he's not in favor of it.

SCOTT BENSON: What you're actually asking the city of Detroit to do and its residents to do is to approve basically that the citizens of Detroit become a guinea pig for an untested and unproven model. What you're really going to end up doing is just pushing development away from the city of Detroit.

JOUPPI: So Benson and other city leaders have offered an alternative on the ballot that would, among other things, require developers and elected officials to be part of discussions with residents. Whatever the outcome Tuesday, people in Detroit are hoping they'll end up with a defined role in the city's renaissance. For NPR News, I'm Shelby Jouppi in Detroit.

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