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Interview: Michigan Municipal League Director Dan Gilmartin—Rising Above Politics to Save Michigan

by Chris Savage

Dan Gilmartin is the Executive Director and CEO of the Michigan Muncipal League, the youngest director in its 100+ year history. He is on the Board of Directors of the National League of Cities and serves as a member of the Michigan Future, Inc. Leadership Council. Gilmartin also has an impressive blog called The Economics of Place where he writes extensively about the revitalization of Michigan cities, villages and townships. He is a contributing author of a book coming out this month titled The Economics of Place – The Value of Building Communities Around People. As if all that weren’t enough, Gilmartin also hosts a monthly radio show on 760 WJR called The Prosperity Agenda that attracts a wide variety of guests who are experts on how to improve municipalites, make them more vibrant, successful, prosperous and livable. He currently lives in Northville with his wife and two sons.

Dan Gilmartin In Michigan, we have the entire range of municipalities. From tiny villages in the far reaches of the Upper Peninsula to the sprawling Detroit metropolitan area with its city hub and many suburban cities, our state has a vast array of communities, all with unique assets and challenges and nearly all struggling in our current economic crisis. There are few people in Michigan more qualified than Dan Gilmartin (pictured right) to talk about what it will take to return Michigan and its varying municipalities to prosperity. On his blog, Gilmartin covers everything from what makes municipalities “livable” to the impact of state and federal policies on our communities. This native-Michigander is a fierce advocate for Michigan municipalities and a true asset to our state. We asked Dan to sit down to answer some questions and give us his insight on the “State of the State,” now and into the future.

A2Politico: Dan, thanks for taking the time for this interview. First of all, tell us a bit about the Michigan Municipal League. What’s your mission and what types of things do you do to help Michigan municipalities?

The Michigan Municipal League is the one clear voice for Michigan communities. Through advocacy at the state and federal level, we proactively represent municipalities to help them sustain highly livable, desirable, and unique places within the state. We create and offer services and events that range from traditional to cutting edge, in order to help educate and inspire community leaders to remain focused on their passion for the communities where they live.

A2Politico: The Michigan Municipal League was recently chosen as one of Crain’s Detroit Business 48 Cool Places to Work in Southeast Michigan. Why do you think you were chosen for this honor? Have you been flooded with applications and where can I send mine?!

We are very proud of the award. Our success, like every organization’s, is about people. We hire creative, smart, and passionate people and then provide a high level of support for them as we collectively seek to make positive changes in our state. It’s a great formula and it makes for a fun environment. As for resumes, you can find us at www.mml.org and we’re always looking for great people.

A2Politico: What’s the state of municipalities in Michigan right now? Many seem to really be struggling. What are the main reasons for this?

Communities certainly are struggling. It’s easy to blame it on the economy, which certainly doesn’t help, but I lay more responsibility at the feet of state government. State and local governments had been great partners in providing services until the 1990s, but as the state’s own finances started dwindling, it embarked on a steady raid of funds slated for locals. Combine that with some out-of-date priorities and you wind up in difficult straits.

A2Politico: What do you see as the most promising approaches that municipalities can take to improve their situation and ensure their vibrancy & viability in today’s economic reality?

At the League, all of our research points to the importance of “place” as being the lynch pin for what makes a community successful. In this day and age when people and jobs are mobile, a community has to stand out as a place that you want to be. That means taking advantage of unique leverage points and assets that a community possesses like historic downtowns, waterfronts, colleges, open space and the like. Your readers can find out more about these matters at www.mml.org/resources/21c3/default.aspx.

A2Politico: What things, if any, should the federal government be doing to help municipalities?

How much room do I have?! Actually, the most important and immediate thing that the federal government could do is pass a comprehensive transportation bill. It would be a great boost for the economy and meeting our long-term infrastructure needs is critical for municipalities. A comprehensive bill would provide funding and structure for roads, bridges, high speed rail, airports, and public transit. Without it, we are in real trouble.

A2Politico: Talk about infrastructure in Michigan. We have an enviable highway system but a rather embarrassing mass transit system. Like the rest of the country, much of our infrastructure is aging and in need of repair or replacement. What should Michigan be doing with regard to infrastructure and can it be used, as President Barack Obama and other have suggested, to help improve our economy and put people back to work?

Michigan should also pass comprehensive transportation reform. We are working with many groups in Lansing to make this happen, but the Legislature will ultimately need to muster the political will to make real changes. And you’re right, our infrastructure in Michigan is embarrassing, so we must do something soon. And finally, we MUST improve our public transit systems in urban areas or we simply won’t be competitive for people and jobs. This should be a state priority, but just an urban one.

A2Politico: Let’s turn to state government and its relationship to municipalities in our state. There is no question that many Michigan municipalities are in dire economic straits these days. With Governor Rick Snyder‘s new budget, things are only going to get worse due to a substantial decrease in revenue sharing (tax revenues that are returned to local municipalities) that helps to pay for an 86% tax break for Michigan businesses. Do you agree with the governor’s approach of focusing on lowering taxes for Michigan businesses as a way to revitalize the state? Will this benefit municipalities in the long term? How will municipalities deal with even less revenues in the future?

Governor Snyder has an extensive business background and I think he truly believes that his first priority was to balance the state budget and provide some economic stability to a system that has lacked it for a long time. Some like what was passed earlier this year, others didn’t. At this point what is more important is where we go from here. The governor, again true to his business roots, views the next steps as being strategic investments (not cuts or tax breaks) in areas that will reinvigorate our economy. By any measure, creating and maintaining strong communities meets that criteria. The governor has expressed this belief on many occasions. It is important that he follow through with that vision for all of Michigan. I believe that he will.

A2Politico: Governor Snyder and Republicans in the Legislature have chosen a path that gives municipalities incentives for combining services. In general, is this a good thing or a bad thing? What are the upsides and downsides to this for local governments?

As long as there are carrots and incentives then it is probably good. However, I don’t think it is good long-term public policy for a term-limited Legislature to impose its vision for local service delivery on local governments

A2Politico: Governor Snyder has said a major priority for the coming year is the elimination of the personal property tax which requires businesses to pay taxes on the equipment they purchase. He has said it “causes strange economic behavior that can inhibit job growth.” However, for many municipalities, the personal property tax accounts for large percentages of their annual revenues. How do you see this playing out? Is the elimination of the personal property tax something that will help or hurt municipalities?

Nobody likes the tax. However, its elimination without a fully-funded, guaranteed replacement would wreak havoc on municipalities throughout the state. Cities, villages, counties, schools—you name it—would suffer mightily if the PPT is eliminated without replacement. Bankruptcy would be the only option for literally dozens of local units. That’s why we have started the “Replace Don’t Erase” (www.replacedonterase.com) campaign, which is an effort to push for a full guaranteed replacement if the Legislature and governor choose to act.

The argument that the PPT is anti-business has merit, but it is much more anti-business to attempt to attract people and jobs to a state that no longer funds its communities and schools at an adequate level. We will face this situation even more than we do today if a full, guaranteed replacement isn’t enacted. However, if the governor and Legislature enact a full, guaranteed replacement then the change could be win-win.

A2Politico: Republicans in Michigan have chosen to give all businesses in the state tax breaks rather than singling out specific industries to promote through various incentives (what some call “choosing winners and losers.”) Do you view this as a positive approach or does it put our cities at risk as industries such as movie-making and green energy take their business to other states that provide more attractive industry-specific incentives?

I think that the entire tax incentive conversation is in flux at present and it may take a few years to shake out. However, whether we are pro incentive or not, our ability to attract and retain jobs and people is more contingent on the health of our communities than what’s in our goodie bags for corporations. This isn’t 1970. We don’t lose to places like Boston, Austin, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Seattle on tax rates anymore. We lose on our quality of place and our willingness to invest in ourselves. The statistics are undeniable.

A2Politico: Former governor Jennifer Granholm was an ardent supporter of diversifying Michigan’s industrial base, pivoting from a vehicle-manufacturing focus to a broader cross-section of industries. What do you feel she did right and wrong in her efforts to accomplish this? Do you think that Governor Snyder should continue her efforts? Do you believe he will?

Michigan is in a tough spot. Diversification is paramount, but many of our building blocks are still tied to specific industries and those industries remain very important in the aggregate. It is not easy to change, but we need to develop a stronger knowledge-based economy in our state because that’s where there is job growth and economic promise. I believe Governor Snyder understands that.

A2Politico: What recommendations do you have for Michigan lawmakers to improve the state’s economy and help our municipalities? Give me a “wish list” — things they should do and/or things they should stop doing.

Here we go…

  1. Recognize the enormous economic importance of our communities and develop a thorough policy that supports them across all of state government (i.e. housing, transportation, natural resources, etc).
  2. Become a partner, not simply a critic, in reinventing and innovating governmental service delivery in our state. We should be a model for the other 49 states to follow.
  3. Increase transportation funds by $1.5 billion annually and provide additional local funding options so that we can transform our dilapidated system into a 21st century asset. Build a comprehensive transit system in southeast Michigan and facilitate high-speed rail along appropriate routes inside our borders and out.
  4. Repeal all burdensome unfunded mandates on local governments.
  5. Start dreaming again. We don’t do much of that anymore. What’s the last big dream we had? The Mackinac Bridge? Other states, even rustbelt states, are reinventing and reinvesting, but we are still bickering about small stuff. As a state of 10 million inhabitants, we need to give ourselves license to do big things again like we did when our parents and grandparents ran things. It’s what made us great and it’s what will carry us forward, too.

A2Politico: It’s hard to talk about Michigan cities without mentioning Detroit. On one hand, Detroit seems to be circling the drain in many respects. Crumbling infrastructure, decades of poor or corrupt leadership, a dwindling population and businesses have been leaving for years. On the other hand, there is a vibrant arts community in Detroit and there seem to be islands of economic development that are growing slowly but surely. What are your thoughts about Detroit, its current mayor & his approaches, and about the future of Detroit in general? What are your recommendations for Detroit 2.0?

Detroit has more promise than any city in the country. There, I said it!

I, and many others, believe this and see the great opportunities that the city presents. In spite of the obvious negatives, there is a vibe about what is going on in Detroit that is palpable. It’s the ultimate do-it-yourself city. If you have a business idea that you truly believe in, the barriers to entry are minimal compared to what you find in other big cities in the U.S. Young people, especially, are recognizing this fact. Despite the overall population loss in the 2010 Census, the number of college educated young people living in the downtown area increased over 50 percent during the decade, and the number continues to grow. A friend of mine said it best, “If you want to dwell, then go to Chicago. It’s already done. But if you want to create something, come to Detroit.”

The mayor and city council have experienced some bumps in the road, but they are focusing on many of the right issues and are moving the city closer to realizing its potential.

A2Politico: You have a new book coming out this month called The Economics of Place. Who is your audience for this book and what message do you want them to take away from it?

At my blog site www.economicsofplace.com I explain the concept of “place” this way:

Experts from around the world—in academic, business, and public sectors alike—have shown that strategically investing in communities is a critical element to long-term economic development and quality of life in the 21st century. The future of communities in Michigan and elsewhere depends on their abilities to attract and retain knowledge-based workers, entrepreneurs, and growing industries. Central to attracting these important commodities is the concept of PLACE. To be successful, communities must effectively develop and leverage their key human, natural, cultural, and structural assets and nurture them through enacting effective public policy.

That’s one (long) answer. Another one is, with a tip of the cap to Fred Kent at the Project for Public Spaces, “turning a place from one that you can’t wait to get through into one that you never want to leave.” I like this one better.

The book explores all that makes communities economically viable in 2011. From cultural issues, to diversity, to entrepreneurism, to physical design, we cover it all in the book. Anyone interested in getting a copy can find a link on my blog.

As for the intended audience? It’s everyone who lives in, or cares about Michigan.

A2Politico: Let’s end on a positive note. What makes Michigan special? Why will we ultimately succeed in bouncing back from our economic abyss?

When we stop our self loathing, it is clear that Michigan has many assets on which we can build— lots of R & D, a busy international border, great higher education, the Great Lakes and a productive (although underutilized at present) workforce. There are many others, too. It is up to us to create our own future, and that future should begin with a recreation of our urban network in Michigan. I believe it will happen. If you agree, I suggest checking out www.letssavemichigan.com and joining a growing statewide movement to make this vision a reality.

You can follow Dan Gilmartin on Twitter HERE and on Facebook HERE. His blog is The Economics of Place.

For more of Chris Savage’s writing, visit Eclectablog.com. 

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1 Comment for “Interview: Michigan Municipal League Director Dan Gilmartin—Rising Above Politics to Save Michigan”

  1. [...] in Michigan. This tax provides a huge percentage of revenue for many Michigan municipalities. In an interview I did this past week with Dan Gilmartin of the Michigan Municipal League for A2Politico, I asked him about this: Governor Snyder has said a major priority for the coming year is the [...]

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