Detroit’s Future: What is it?

As business and community leaders convene this week for the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual confab on Mackinac, here’s else to ponder:

What does Detroit’s future look like?

To wit, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Detroit.  All iconic, American cities, and at one time, were the five largest in the country based on population. While there’s been a reshuffling of these cities (LA’s replaced Chicago and Philly’s no longer there), one has precipitously dropped, Detroit.

According to the U.S. Census, Detroit reached 1.85 million in the ‘50’s, and as a youngster growing in the city, it was home to 1.5 million. Today, it’s just north of 620k.  Metro Detroit is still a top 15 population center (but has fallen from the top 10 in recent years), but the city is not.

Talk about a gut punch and a region’s pride taking a hit. Certainly, the numbers can be challenged, but overall trends can’t be.

It’s astonishing that any city can lose nearly two thirds of its population.  Coupled with a recently published Crain’s headline stating, “Nearly half of young residents say they might leave Michigan, poll shows”, the city’s and state’s population trends should be concerning for all of us.

There are many reasons for the city’s population decline, including past policies (Urban Renewal, freeways being strategically built, etc.), white and, now black flight, manufacturing job losses, safety concerns, education challenges, etc.

Moving forward?

Big, shiny objects are simply not the only answer. While they garner the headlines, focusing on “blocking and tackling” can make the difference.

In business, when a brand is in the declining phase in the Product Life Cycle, a decision has to be made to refresh (or rebrand), harvest (stop promoting) or simply have an exit strategy.

No one is suggesting the latter but it’s time for the city to redefine itself.

Detroit will no longer be a manufacturing behemoth. It needs to be right-sized and focused on areas of future development and growth opportunities.

For example, what types of jobs should it target to attract and what are specific plans to make it happen?  Is the current workforce prepared for the ongoing technological evolution?  What role does education have in this new economy? What are future sources of revenue?

Yes, the city has attracted investment dollars, new development and yes, new residents.

Recent announcements for District Detroit including its promise of 18,000 jobs, a revitalized vibrancy in Corktown, an investment in Factory Zero Assembly Center, and new housing projects have certainly brought a level of optimism and excitement.

But more must be done.

The city has vast amounts of vacant land. How will it be repurposed and leveraged for investment opportunities? What’s the overall vision for this land? How is it turned into revenue generators and job creation (urban farming is not the only answer)? Ultimately, how can this land be used to create value?

I believe the state needs to continue to increase its efforts collaborating with the city on attracting investment dollars and jobs.

Not just piecemeal, but a comprehensive, overarching plan designed to attract investments, jobs and residents into the city while retaining those still here.

We’ve all seen and heard stories about the decision to “outflow” jobs to other states by companies headquartered in Metro Detroit.

How did this happen?  And what plans are in place to stem and reverse the tide?

Regarding residents, people seek quality of life opportunities including safety, security, jobs, affordability, education, entertainment, etc. and today’s world, people are finding solace in suburban communities and elsewhere.

Young people continue to migrate elsewhere. While we can’t control the weather (harsh winters, at times), not all young people are moving to warmer climates. Chicago, Seattle and Denver, anyone?

As a college instructor, I know firsthand the number of young people wanting to leave the city and state. I’ve received a number of emails from former students now living elsewhere.


Anecdotally. I simply ask, by show of hands, how many plan on staying. Less than half intend to. I recently attended a panel discussion of Gen Z’ers and listened intently as to why they plan on leaving Michigan. Not staying but leaving. And not all are going to warmer climates.

Politics and regional differences aside, the city, region and state need to take a good, hard introspective look while asking a simple question, why would anybody want to move here?

Or, we all be reprising a line we’ve heard before (and I’m paraphrasing here), the last one to leave should not forget to turn off the lights.

I’m hopeful the lights will continue to burn for a long time.

But not without change.

Mark S. Lee is Founder, President & CEO, The LEE Group, and can be heard on “The Weekly Wrap Up”, Saturdays, 2 p.m., and “In the Conference Room”, Sundays, 11 am, on 910AM.