Detroit, the Billionaire’s Playground

Posted on February 8, 2013

WITH the fourth anniversary of the Obama administration’s auto bailout approaching, the Detroit comeback narrative has settled into accepted history. Just last week, Chrysler, once the wobbliest of the Big Three, announced a ninefold increase in profits since 2011. In its Sunday Super Bowl ad, the company exuded such confidence, it no longer felt the need to defensively celebrate Rust Belt grittiness with the help of Eminem or Clint Eastwood, going instead with a syrupy paean to the Farm Belt called “God Made a Farmer.”

It wasn’t immediately clear if God also made second-tier assembly line workers starting at 14 bucks an hour, but no matter. Detroit was back! Unless, of course, by “Detroit” you meant the actual city rather than the auto industry, in which case, well, the picture becomes a bit more complicated. Battered for decades by the same problems — a steady loss of people and jobs, a soaring murder rate, a wholesale erosion of its tax base — the city now faces the prospect of running out of cash as soon as the end of the month, which would mean the largest municipal bankruptcy in United States history.

Three recent proposals on ways to patch holes in Detroit’s budget illustrate just how desperate things have become.

The first, and by far the most serious, came from Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, who offered to lease Belle Isle, a city-owned island park, around 985 acres, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1883. Under the plan, in the works since last summer, the island would have become a state park with an entry fee, thus covering the annual $6 million in maintenance and operations costs — funds sorely needed for the beloved landmark, which in recent years has fallen into disrepair. When the Detroit City Council president, Charles Pugh, insisted that “Belle Isle is not about to sink into the Detroit River if we don’t approve the lease,” he was incorrect. And I mean literally: the city has not had the money to perform, in the words of The Detroit Free Press, the maintenance needed to keep the park “from sinking into the Detroit River.”

Still, the council, under pressure from a vocal minority suspicious of “outsiders” looting Detroit’s few remaining assets, postponed a long-planned vote on the Belle Isle proposal, prompting Governor Snyder to rescind his offer. Soon after, Mayor Dave Bing, who had supported the governor’s plan, announced that he would be forced to close 51 other parks in order to keep Belle Isle, as it were, afloat. That means, according to another Free Press article, that “Detroit, a city with 700,000 residents, will have only 57 of its 300-plus parks open starting this spring.”

Belle Isle was recently at the center of a different moneymaking scheme. A group of wealthy libertarians suggested that private investors buy the island from the city for the nice, round, Dr. Evil-ish sum of $1 billion and transform it into an independent, self-governing territory. With the price for citizenship set at $300,000, the Commonwealth of Belle Isle would exist as a sort of free-market paradise; within 30 years, the group’s Web site predicted, the island would be known as the “ ‘Midwest Tiger,’ rivaling Singapore as an economic miracle.” One can order from that Web site a novella about this future Belle Isle, which describes the commonwealth’s low taxes, minimal government, even its own currency (called — seriously — “the Rand”).

The book — a preview of its opening chapter has the hero landing on the rooftop helipad of the commonwealth’s 57-story Four Seasons hotel — makes the entire scheme very easy to mock as Objectivist fan fiction. But it’s not entirely a joke: private foundations and deep-pocketed members of the local business elite exercise an outsize influence in a city as broke as Detroit, providing financing for everything from a much-needed light-rail line to the ambitious Detroit Future City plan, which would entirely remap the city.

People like Dan Gilbert, the owner of Quicken Loans and the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Mike Ilitch, a founder of Little Caesars pizza, have been snatching up shuttered skyscrapers and prewar office buildings — since December Mr. Gilbert has bought at least five buildings and, reputedly, an entire downtown city block — as if they’re Monopoly properties.

The third revenue-generating idea, in fact, came via Mr. Gilbert’s Twitter feed. Why not, he mused, build a “world-class Epcot-like car attraction” in downtown Detroit? He bristled at indecorous comparisons to AutoWorld, Flint’s failed 1980s attempt at just such an automobile theme park, made infamous in the documentary “Roger & Me.”

Detroiters who are worried about ceding local power to Michigan’s Republican governor shouldn’t forget the ways in which power has already been ceded to an unelected oligarchy, whose members might, no matter how ostensibly well intentioned, possess questionable ideas about urban renewal.

All three of these tragicomic attempts to stanch the bleeding highlight the obvious: Detroit needs money. While the salvation of the auto companies remains a signature achievement of President Obama’s first term, his inability to deal with the entrenched problems of cities like Detroit remains an enormous failure. When New York teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in the 1970s, it was famously told, in the headline of The Daily News, to “Drop Dead.” But then President Gerald R. Ford extended the city $2.3 billion in federal loans. That’s 1975 billions! An impossible sum to imagine in our current age of austerity.

Here’s hoping the libertarian billionaires turn out to be benign sovereigns.

Mark Binelli, New York Times.