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

4/26/10Follow @wroush

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at any other point in the U.S. This is also the only point in the U.S. where you have a tremendous logistics industry, formed by the auto companies. Then you have incredible capacity at the airport. This should be North America’s largest, most vibrant inland port. You can move more goods through here that are large in size, or expensive in cost, or both, than anywhere else in the world.

You then have a state surrounded by 20 percent of the world’s freshwater supply, which is liquid gold. I think we’re going to figure out in time how to take advantage of that resource in new ways. And the world’s greatest manufacturing capacity still exists in this region. The largest minority-owned supply chain in North America is here. We have developed more diverse manufacturing industries than anyplace else. Those are not going to go away, but they must be opened up to diversification in new ways.

So you have all of these comparative advantages that can drive an economy in a major way—and not just the Detroit economy. I think you are looking at a laboratory for how the U.S. economy needs to diversify.

X: But when it comes to rebuilding the economy, it seems that it’s only in the last few years that politicians, industry leaders, and philanthropic leaders in Detroit have been owning up to the scale of the challenge. Why did it take so long?

DE: We’ve been our own worst enemy in that regard. The politics coming out of the 1950s and 1960s created divides across the region. We allowed politicians and some community leaders and business folks to derive their power from keeping us all separate. Whether it was folks in the city saying “We don’t need suburbanites” or suburbanites saying “We don’t care about the city,” whether it was a black-white issue—it’s well documented in Detroit that we allowed a power structure to move in and take root where the power was clearly derived from keeping us a divided place. Now, for the first time in four or five decades, everyone in the region is starting to understand that it is a symbiotic relationship. We need each other.

X: The New Economy Initiative is a coalition of 10 different foundations that focus their philanthropy on Detroit or southeast Michigan. It’s hard enough to get two foundations with their own agendas to work together, let alone 10. How do you do it?

DE: It’s been fascinating and stimulating, to say the least. All of these foundations have one thing in common, and that is that they want to see change in southeast Michigan, whether it’s because they’re a local foundation that’s rooted here, or one of the national foundations that sees Detroit as a great laboratory. The structure of what we put together is what is keeping the 10 players at the table and fully committed. It’s a very interactive group, balanced with eight community leaders and also a council of economic advisers who bring national expertise to help form the direction for the initiative.

I’m not so sure we even could have had a New Economy Initiative five years ago. I don’t think the philanthropic community was ready. I don’t think we had developed the … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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