How to Hit a Curveball

Confront and Overcome the Unexpected in Business
By Scott R. Singer with Mark Levine

Stepping Outside the (Urban) Batter’s Box

Friday, March 12th, 2010

Few American cities have been thrown as many curveballs as Detroit. The city that was once the symbol of America’s economic prosperity has been suffering from a long, sometimes gradual, sometimes precipitous decline. What began as white flight from a still economically vibrant but racially troubled metropolis, turned into an across the board economic meltdown that coincided with the collapse of the American automobile industry in 2008 and 2009.

Now, a city of nearly 2 million in the 1950s has declined to less than half that number. On some blocks, only one or two occupied houses remain, surrounded by trash-strewn lots and vacant, burned-out homes. Scavengers have stripped anything of value from empty buildings. According to one recent estimate, Detroit has 33,500 empty houses and 91,000 vacant residential lots.

—Associated Press, Detroit Wants to Save Itself by Shrinking

Recently elected mayor Dave Bing, a successful businessman and former professional basketball player, and the rest of the city’s officials, were confronted with a $300 million budget deficit, a small and shrinking tax base, and increasing demands for police, fire and other municipal services. Then the recession of 2008 struck, making things even worse. Detroit seems on its way to plunging into unprecedented depths for a modern American metropolis (save New Orleans). If ever
there is a time to think outside the box, this is it.

“Things that were unthinkable are now becoming thinkable,” said James W. Hughes, dean of the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, who is among the urban experts watching the experiment with interest. “There is now a realization that past glories are never going to be recaptured. Some people probably don’t accept that, but that is the reality.”

—Associated Press, Detroit Wants to Save Itself by Shrinking

What is Detroit’s plan? To shrink the city. Blighted areas will be entirely demolished. Residents in those areas will be relocated to healthier parts of the city. And how will the demolished areas be redeveloped? They won’t be. The idea is to let them become semi rural and revert to agricultural and other uses that require very little municipal support. The concept has been used by other cities before, but never on the scale Detroit is proposing.

No one can yet say whether this “undevelopment” of Detroit will work. But what no one can deny is that, faced with a series of unprecedented curveballs the city’s new leadership is showing a willingness to step outside the batter’s box. You have to admire the effort.

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