Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Dog Days in Detroit

Dateline: 12:10 pm January 21, 2010 Filed under:

With a short layover in Detroit a week ago, I made myself comfortable between flights by watching the Cardinals-Packers game. The Delta/Northwest terminal at Detroit is the best place to watch football in any airport I know of. Rather than jockeying for a table in a bar with a decent view of a tiny TV, every other gate area has a huge, scoreboard-size screen. When there are games on, those gate areas fill up with football fans. The seats facing away from the screen stay empty.

As I like to do in other cities (or simply their airports), while watching that fantastic football game, I picked up a copy of The Detroit News. The big auto show was about to begin in Detroit, and the mood was markedly upbeat from last year, when two of the Big Three automakers were in major trouble. The theme of this year’s show was recovery and more fuel efficient cars. Ford in particular was getting accolades for being ahead of the other two in turning its fortunes around.

I have no doubt that some of the newer, more fuel efficient cars coming out of Detroit will do well in the market. I sure hope so. I rented a Ford Focus a couple years ago and decided it was designed with a decided lack of focus. I was happy to come home and drive my Honda Civic.

Now, I’ve never set foot in Detroit, and I know nobody likes outsiders to tell them what to do. Perhaps it’s none of my business, but I can’t help but wonder if Detroit needs a little help letting go of its past.

It is easier to tell your relative it’s time to put their old dog down than to come to terms with your own pet. And so the juxtiposition is striking between last week’s Economist and last Sunday’s Detroit News’ editiorial page. The Economist points out some sobering statistics; that there will be one-quarter the jobs in the automotive industry in Michigan in 2011 versus 2000, and that it may take 15 years for the state to return to economic health.

Contrast that with the The Detroit News editorial I read. “If consumers warm to the new generation of vehicles, the domestic carmakers should be OK.”

Wow, are we even talking about the same thing? I’m not sure the wisdom of anyone in Michigan, particularly newspapers, pinning their hopes purely on the recovery of the Big Three.

The Economist went on to say that now is the time to invest in new industries. One example is three of the major universities in Michigan are cooperating on the University Research Corridor, an effor to better tie research with industry.

Young people are leaving Michigan in high numbers. Yes, it is imperative that the Big Three get their feet under them; there is a future, albeit at a smaller market share than in the past, for automaking in Michigan. The state must look ahead and find new ways to make money and retain young talent.

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