Breaking the Myopic Mold: Q&A with David Egner of Detroit’s New Economy Initiative

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common vision, and we had not yet learned how to work together in a way that truly was capturing the notion that one and one could make more than two. So there’s been an evolution in the thinking.

X: What kept the foundations from working together in the past, and what has changed?

DE: I think most of the foundations working in Detroit had a specific mission or group of projects they were working on, and it was difficult for one group to see the connection to the other groups’ work. I think we have reached a point of understanding now that all of this work is interconnected, whether it’s the Skillman Foundation, whose greatest expertise is on the K-12 education system, or the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan looking broadly at the whole region, or the McGregor Fund looking at human services. They are all connected. For example, economic development in southeast Michigan will be meaningless if we don’t improve the K-12 education system in the City of Detroit. Before, we were very myopic. The Hudson-Webber Foundation, for example, would say that we were only interested in the City of Detroit and its physical rehabilitation and nothing else. But we are starting to understand that we need to think as a group about this agenda and get some good synergy around basic change in the fabric of how Detroit operates.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Mayor Bing. I think the Bing Administration has been very open to discussing ideas for how to improve the city, and that is crucial to how philanthropy has played with them. But I also think they’ve not been shy about talking about the tough issues around reinventing Detroit. Land use is the best example of that. When you’ve got a city infrastructure built for over 2 million people and you’ve only got 800,000 or 900,000 residents, you’ve got a problem. 40 percent of the land grid is vacant. And now the city is saying we’ve got to take that on. That sounds logical but from a politician’s point of view it has got to be the most difficult issue in the world to deal with. It’s never been done in the U.S.—we’ve never developed a set of policies for repurposing so much urban land.

X: In a way, doesn’t all that vacant land represent a huge opportunity? You could do a hundred things with it—you could build new factories, neighborhoods, farms, green spaces.

DE: It’s a tremendous opportunity. It’s another one of those competitive advantages. You’ve got low barriers of entry for new businesses and new thinking because of the land. So the city is looking at how it creates systems to manage that land re-use. And that is the difficult part—the whole issue of claiming title and picking some neighborhoods to develop for density purposes while being cautious about neighborhoods that are less dense and still have people living there who have lived there for decades. But the fact that the city is taking that on is a great example of what this administration is doing to make the city more attractive and able to think more creatively.

X: The way I understand it, you’ve been temporarily reassigned by the Hudson-Webber Foundation, where you are the president, to run the New Economy Initiative. Can you put your Hudson-Webber hat on for a minute and fill me in about the focus of that foundation, and talk about what it’s been like for the Hudson-Webber to get so closely involved with the other foundations?

DE: The Hudson-Webber Foundation was founded from the resources put forward by the department store family, the Hudsons. Richard Webber was the second-generation owner and was truly the philanthropist. Webber and his brothers ran the store, and were very liberal in their thinking about how to make Detroit a great place. They actually founded the Thanksgiving Day parade that Macy’s operated, and they founded the modern-day shopping mall. They were tremendous innovators, and they loved the city. The foundation’s purpose is to improve the quality of life in the City of Detroit. We have spent a lot of our time focused on economic development and physical revitalization in the central business district and the mid-town area of the city.

Recently, looking at the data, we had a light bulb go off when we looked at the issue of young talent. We know through a series of studies like the Yankelovich study, looking at the migration patterns of young people, that two-thirds of those graduating college pick a city before they pick a career or a job. For example, some decide that they want to be urban dwellers and have an urban experience. But Detroit is losing a much larger percentage of its young people than … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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