Detroit inches toward revival, again

Signs of momentum are evident in Motor City, which is banking on new

For the people of longsuffering Detroit, seeing progress in their city is all about being glad for little things.

And as sports fans tune in to the Motor City tonight for the final game at historic Tiger Stadium, it turns out there are more and more of these little things to be glad for.

Take downtown's newly rising parking rates - a sign of new economic bustle. Or a church-based housing group's recent building and selling of a townhouse - the first new-construction home sold in its neighborhood in 40 years.

Or the trio of gangly construction cranes - a rare sight in this famously decaying city - hovering over a new parking garage for the new MGM Grand casino.

Yes, there are higher-profile happenings in Motown - three casinos on the way, and two stadiums, one replacing the soon-to-close Tiger Stadium. But in this most desperate of American cities - a city that has botched sure-thing comebacks before - residents put more faith in facts on the ground than in plans on the drawing board.

"Progress has been exceedingly slow," says David Littmann, Comerica Bank's chief economist, "but at least there's progress." He compiles a "comeback index" for the city - a collection of economic indicators that's been rising strongly of late. And he cites the rising parking rates as a good sign.

For sure, the city's problems are many. It is, by some accounts, America's most-segregated city. It has lost more than 1 million residents in recent decades - and is in grave danger of losing millions in federal funds if next year's census shows its population has fallen below 1 million.

Its corporate taxes are six times higher than the average for a Michigan municipality. The city bureaucracy is notoriously Byzantine and unresponsive. In some offices, requests and messages are piled high, while employees openly joke about how little they have to do.

A new plan of attack

Attempts by Mayor Dennis Archer and his lieutenants to crack the whip have led to death threats against managers. The city has about 40 vacant lots, some of which are piled with rotting refuse because trash pick-up and other city services are so spotty.

So, into this landscape comes a new strategy for salvation: casinos and stadiums, along with luring businesses downtown.

Within four years, a trio of casinos will stand in a glistening new complex along the waterfront.

And meanwhile, the city has let the gambling firms set up temporary casinos to siphon money away from the competition in nearby Windsor, Ontario. One is open. Two more are coming soon.

While the other elements - stadiums and companies moving downtown - are legitimate parts of the comeback attempt, it's the casinos that form the "the lion's share of the expectations," says Mr. Littmann, the economist.

Indeed, no other major American city in recent times has jumped so headlong into gambling so quickly. "It's never been tried in a city this big before," says John Tarras, a business-hospitality professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

The temporary MGM Grand casino -which sits just a few blocks from tonight's main attraction, Tiger Stadium -cost $220 million and shimmers in a glow of fluorescent lights as patrons stream in 24 hours a day. In all, the casino tax rate will be about 22 percent. Only Illinois taxes its casinos more. And that means a massive new revenue stream for the city.

But some are skeptical as to whether these big-ticket items will prove to be the city's salvation.

"Will people stay in the city or move back into the city because of them? No," says Victoria Kovari, a community activist who's head of SWAN Housing, the church-based group that just built the new townhouse. Her hope is that new revenues will mean better services. Others hope the corporate moves will boost the economy.

Solace in the little things

Officials tout recent decisions by General Motors and the computer firm Compuware to relocate downtown. But the Compuware move, for instance, isn't even a done deal. Assuming it does go through, the move wouldn't be completed for at least three years.

So Ms. Kovari and others seek solace in smaller improvements. There's the fact that, after a citywide cleanup, her kids' school no longer has mice, roaches, and broken drinking fountains.

There's the fact that more Detroiters are working and fewer are on public assistance. In 1993, 219,000 were on public aid, while 338,000 had jobs.

Last year just 128,000 were on aid and 370,000 were working. Or there's the fact that property values have risen an average of 11 percent in each of the past three years, a trend driven by Michigan's 1995 property-tax relief.

Even corporate taxes - a huge impediment to luring companies - have dropped one-tenth of 1 percent in recent years.

In taxes, as in many things, "any movement is progress," says Littmann, but for now anyway, "the magnitude leaves a lot to be desired."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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