When the community benefits we all all benefit. That is one of the reasons why voters in the City of Detroit passed a community benefit agreement (CBAs) for projects receiving government funds or tax breaks.
Just in time too for such large scale projects such as Little Caesars Arena and the rest of District Detroit, along with the Gordie Howe International Bridge which is a new border crossing between Ontario and Michigan. (In the Great Lakes, we build bridges, not walls).
While the intent of CBAs are pure, sometimes they can lead to project delays in the case of the new international bridge. That is why developers should approach the affected community well in advance of announcing a new project. Obtaining the buy in and support of the local community or neighborhood can be crucial to the success of any project. To do so, they should partner with a local consultant who is familiar with the people, places, personalities and politics of the region.
Developers too should be warned to go beyond the checking of boxes in looking at ways to support the community. They need to understand who the influencers are, what they would like to see in their neighborhood and what issues are important to them that you can support or incorporate into the project.
In 2015, Subway (the restaurant) opened a location in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood in Washington DC, but the neighbors in that area wanted a local shop in that space, not a national franchise. So long time Mt. Pleasant resident and artist Robin Bell designed a graffiti image projected by light on the building's facade with #jaredlies surrounded by emojis. The Subway has since relocated.
While developing any project in a large city can be challenging, it is even more of challenge when you working with various interests, often passionate about what they want for their community. That is even more challenging if the developers are outsiders, people not from the city or even the region that come in and try to dictate their vision without understand the politics and culture of the places they want to build in.
Developers have their vision of how they want to turn a block into a vibrant mixed use facility that can be quickly derailed or turn into something completely different if the community is not approached or engaged, where sometimes the developer would simply walk away.
Knowing the local politics can help avoid such headaches and costly delays. Not only should the developers be aware of the various stakeholders, they should be familiar with the local elected officials, again to avoid any delays.
In a city like Detroit, to obtain the community's support it is no longer sufficient to say you are creating jobs, increasing taxable revenue, protecting the environment or adding to the vibrancy and quality of life in the city. The community expects more and that is why the voters in Detroit approved a community benefits agreement.
While other cities such as New York, San Francisco and Chicago have solicited community engagement effectively without mandates from their city governments, developers wanting to do business in Detroit now have to negotiate legally-binding contracts with neighborhood groups to deliver jobs, housing, pollution controls and other benefits in exchange for getting tax breaks and other help from the city.
It’s important new developments are inclusive of the communities they’ll affect, but the health of the city and its residents depend on reliable economic growth, not stagnation. That is why in developing new projects developers must seek the support of local people to help them navigate the people, politics and personalities of a city in which they want to build up and help advance.
*DISCLOSURE: The author, Daniel Cherrin served as the Communications Director for the City of Detroit and Press Secretary for the Mayor of Detroit. He has represented the District Detroit and Olympia Development, City of Windsor and Detroit Windsor Tunnel.