By JAMES MITCHELL
To put the situation in a nutshell— and perspective — Downriver Community Conference Executive Director Jim Perry dredged up a slogan from three decades ago.
“There was that saying in the early 1980s, ‘Will the last one out of Michigan please turn out the lights?’ We lost so many jobs,” Perry said. “The bottom line — and it always will be for anybody to turn around — is jobs.”
From the viewpoint of the Downriver Community Conference, which formed in 1976 as an inter-local agency focused on helping communities share resources to everyone’s benefit, the challenge of shrinking populations in many Downriver communities was compounded by a loss of regional and state jobs. In the first decade of a new century the situation was, Perry said, worse than the recession of the early 1980s.
“In 1980 we were laying people off, but they were going back to work,” Perry said. “Now, we closed plants, and they weren’t going back to work.” Employment is one key to resurrecting Downriver and redeveloping faded neighborhoods and vacant buildings, and the prospects for 2012 and beyond offer cause for hope. Michigan was among 37 states reporting a decline in unemployment rates for December 2011, posting — along with Alabama — the greatest decreases in unemployment, now at 9.3 percent after years of double-digit figures. Even more locally, continued signs of recovery in the auto industry was seen in reports of pay raises and performance bonuses — the first in years for many.
The benefits, Perry said, will appear gradually as a long-cautious population feels comfortable about spending money again.
“When people are working, they’re buying,” Perry said. “They’re shopping, going out to dinner; they’re confident.”
For economic recovery to reshape Downriver, consumer confidence must be matched with business and infrastructure investment. Individual communities and cooperative projects are promising, such as the Fort Street repaving effort, a $40 million overhaul between Pennsylvania and Goddard; a $16 million rebuilding of the interchange of Interstate 75 at Dix-Toledo in Brownstown Township; and Michigan Department of Transportation crews will soon begin an $11 million rebuilding of Interstate 94 bridges over Southfield Freeway in Allen Park.
From a retail standpoint, Southgate suffered its share of losses in recent years, notably the closing of Montgomery Ward at the Southgate Shopping Center at Eureka and Trenton roads. One of the first major “strip malls” in metro Detroit when opened in 1958, the loss of Montgomery Ward in early 2001 started a downward spiral for the Center.
If the shopping plaza’s decline was symbolic of Downriver’s fading fortunes, Mayor Joseph Kuspa offered encouragement during last week’s State of the City address, when he announced the long-awaited demolition of the vacant Montgomery Ward building this spring — the cost to be covered by owner Michael Sisskind, who plans to re-gift the property to the city.
“This project has the potential of redefining the Southgate Shopping Center,” Kuspa said, noting the anticipated retail, dining and entertainment jobs and services. Last year, Southgate welcomed a new Wal-Mart to the northwest corner of Eureka and Dix-Toledo roads, and the expansion of AJM Packaging that, together, brought 600 new jobs to the city. This year, Kuspa said Southgate will see the continuation of the Downtown Development Authority program that, thus far, has poured $1.5 million worth of capital improvement dollars into the Eureka Road corridor, including the streetscape project.
Southgate is not the only success story offering better views of Downriver’s future. Sandy Mull, president of the Southern Wayne County Regional Chamber of Commerce, said that the individual chambers of commerce represented by her group are reporting small yet impressive developments.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Mull said. “We are seeing some growth. A number of our members are looking to hire — maybe not hundreds of people, but they’re hiring. When the small businesses are hiring one or two people, that’s very encouraging.”
Those priceless jobs that Perry, Kuspa and Mull cite are appearing in a variety of fields, often one or two at a time from dozens of businesses. Home-based start-up businesses are moving into store fronts, talk among regional business professionals is more often of potential openings rather than anticipated closures.
The theory that ‘as goes the auto industry goes Downriver’ is a dubious foundation for the area to see growth for the first time in years, Mull said, adding she’d be “more skeptical” if all hopes for the anticipated recovery were pinned on a single enterprise.
“It absolutely can’t rely solely on the auto industry,” Mull said. “The whole country — the whole world — is diversifying. There are still a lot of people waiting for the next upswing in the auto industry, but we can’t just look at it as our only hope.”
Instead, Mull accepted the reality that the days of graduating from high school into a potential $50,000 annual salary with one of the Big Three automakers are long gone, and the future — for the Downriver communities and economy — must take a different path to success.
“Even though it’s doing better, it’s not what it was,” Mull said. “We have to be flexible and not just wait for the auto industry to come back. It is coming back, but it will be different than it was 20 years ago.”
Adjusting to new realities may be, Perry agreed, the final key to Downriver’s business future. Combined with job creation, infrastructure improvements and cooperative community efforts, the population needs to accept that things won’t be the same as they were … but that change doesn’t have to lessen the quality of life.
In spite of years of discouraging reports, business and civic leaders throughout Downriver are now looking at improved forecasts, approved grants and projects, and interest from a diverse field of businesses.
“Will it ever be the same as it used to be?” Perry asked rhetorically. “Who knows? If business works, people work, people are happy and communities are stronger. It’s not a fast process.”
(James Mitchell can be reached at [email protected].)