Detroit: The City of Hope

In an editorial, the USA Today opined, “The bankruptcy of a city as important to American history as Detroit is a sad and telling event. For much of the 20th century, the city’s name was interchangeable with a vibrant auto industry…”

The initial day of reckoning has come and gone.

Now, the question is what’s next?

This is deeply personal for me.

I can honestly say, I thought I would never see bankruptcy in my lifetime.

Well, I was wrong.

Detroit has been good to my family. My father, retired NBD executive, Aubrey W. Lee, Sr. and my mother, Jeane, a Ford retiree, moved to Detroit in 1956 from the South. They settled in the city and raised three sons here–a city humming day and night with nearly two million people and factories belting out cars in record numbers.

I often times hear stories of how they would take buses to various parts of the city–whether day or night. I’ve also heard stories from them about entertainment venues like the 20 Grand and how a “night out” was well, a “night out.”

Now, some 57 years later, Detroit’s become a different type of city. One where services have suffered, manufacturing jobs have dropped substantially (from nearly 296,000 in 1950, to less than 27,000 in 2011) and political malfeasance has become all to common.

After the story went national, I was surprised when I received several text and Facebook messages from around the country offering apologies for what’s happened to Detroit.

In essence, they were offering condolences to an old, fallen friend.

These messages were from Minnesota, Massachusetts, Florida, et. al. and interestingly enough, shared genuine concern for Detroit’s plight and its future.

Detroit’s situation has touched a lot of people and has truly become a national story.

Already, 2013 is a watershed year for Detroit.

From businesses continuing to invest downtown to corruption being aggressively pursued and finally, bankruptcy proceedings, this has been an emotional roller coaster for those who live or work here.

While the bankruptcy filing is no surprise, it truly shakes the inner core and is a dose of reality.

Despite this mixed picture, I truly believe brighter days are ahead. Think of it as the dark before the sunrise.

The time, with a clean slate, is to start–right here and right now.

So, where do we go from here?

1. Run Detroit like a business. I challenge ALL elected public officials, including mayoral candidates, to think of Detroit as business and focus on its balance sheet and its impact on the ability to offer core services. Invest wisely and manage expenses aggressively.

2. Focus on providing high quality core services. Ensure we have high quality public safety, including visible police, functioning lights and response times which are exceptional. From a business standpoint, identify cost efficiencies through privatizing or a RFP process based on providing results and not personal relationships.

3. Accountability. From all levels of government, your role is to represent and serve the public–not yourself. Let’s stop pointing the fingers at others and be responsible for our own actions–and, stop with the “take-over” talk when someone from outside of the city wants to help. This blame tactic is worn out and is falling on deaf ears.

4. Regional cooperation. Focus on regional cooperation and have open dialogue on issues affecting this entire region. The fact is, Detroit is the anchor of this region and state–as evidenced by the heavy media coverage resulting from the bankruptcy proceedings.

Let’s be honest, short term, this will be a PR nightmare for Detroit. The national pundits will view this as a juicy story because it has all of the elements of the rise and fall of an American iconic brand.

However, I view this as an opportunity.

An opportunity to create a message based on a fresh start–without walking away or recognizing the legacy of Detroit’s rich history.

So, messaging will be key.

I’ve had the opportunity to brand and re-brand iconic brands–nationally and regionally.

Recently, I shared in a blog how I would brand Detroit. My point was not forgetting about the past, but focusing on the future. An innovative, creative, urban center which will be leaner, more diverse and will use the talents of young people to focus on innovation is a tremendous opportunity.

Nationally, people will view Detroit as hopeless. I choose not to.

Locally, we need to focus on ourselves and what we can become.

It’s time for us to get our house in order. No more excuses. The time is now because if we won’t who will and the bankruptcy proceedings will be a short term solution and an exercise in futility.

According to the same USA Today editorial, “…Detroit needs to be restored to its proper status as an iconic American city…”

And as the nation’s eyes turn to Detroit, now’s the time to create a new story. Not the same story of hopelessness and despair but a message that say this–

Detroit: America’s Hope.

We can do it and let’s start now–TOGETHER!