Rust Belt resurgence

Leaders in former auto powerhouse work through recovery process

2011-07-10T00:00:00Z 2012-07-16T17:47:06Z Leaders in former auto powerhouse work through recovery processBy Bowdeya Tweh bowdeya.tweh@nwi.com, (219) 933-3316 nwitimes.com

FLINT, Mich. | Lorene Randall could have left the city years ago.

Randall retired from Delphi Corp. after working 34 years for it and its predecessor companies in Flint. Her husband, Frank, died nearly four years ago, and her 27-year-old grandson, Jermaine, was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in June 2009. Her children, who grew up in the city, have left the area as well.

She would have had plenty of company on the way out. The city's population has fallen about 45 percent in the last 50 years.

But Randall, 72, said Flint is a great place to live. Her days are filled with helping workers find employment, and she works with a faith-based coalition to improve local neighborhoods. The coalition is working to launch a local version of the national program Ceasefire to reduce violence in the city.

"I've got more to do," said Randall, a dislocated employment facilitator with the National Employment Law Project. "If God gives me the energy and the means, that's what I'll be doing until I die."

With the help of Randall and other residents, city officials and business leaders say Flint is at least moving in the right direction to make over its downtown, attract younger people to the area and rebuild its jobs base.

But in the 21st century, battling crime and the perception of being the nation's most dangerous city are among the reinvention challenges for one of Michigan's motor cities. City leaders also are struggling to collect revenue to fund government and persuade families to stay in the city.

"When a town falls apart, you can throw stones at a lot of people, including yourself," said Dick Ramsdell, manager of the Flint Farmers Market.

How the mighty fell

Just how far Flint would fall may have been hard to predict, but it's just as difficult to fix. The automotive industry helped define and develop Flint through the 20th century at the same time the steel industry was building the city of Gary's fortunes.

Doug Weiland, executive director of the Genesee County Land Bank Authority, said General Motors employed more than 80,000 people in the Flint area at its peak. Now, the venerable automaker, not far removed from bankruptcy, employs about 6,500 people.

The loss of jobs spurred a population exodus, and left behind were homes and buildings that languished and fell into disrepair. In Flint today, unoccupied homes and properties don't just dot the city's landscape, they cover swaths of neighborhoods.

Housing vacancies in the city rose more than 61 percent to nearly 11,000 units, or 21.1 percent of all housing units, according to U.S. Census data. Add that to the 12,000 vacant lots in the city and elevated levels of home foreclosures and that shows a city with problems, Weiland said.

Blight problems are compounded by public safety concerns among Flint residents and people in Genesee County. Arrests for hand-to-hand drug deals, gang activity and gun violence are common in the city. Earlier this year, the FBI reported crime data showing Flint was one of the most dangerous cities in the United States. Adjusted for the 2010 U.S. Census population data, Flint had nearly 24 violent incidents per 1,000 residents.

Mayor Dayne Walling, who has been in office for less than two years, said firefighters battled more than 300 arsons last year, and the problem hasn't diminished in 2011. Walling issued a statement last month expressing regret that a longtime civil rights activist was shot and killed inside his home in Flint.

"No one in Flint needed an FBI report to tell them we have safety problems," Walling said. "We've been living with that reality."

Walling, 37, said providing adequate police, fire and other services to residents with smaller operating budgets is a challenge that isn't unique to Flint. He said the city has had to be creative in establishing partnerships with residents and entities such as the Michigan State Police.

Contrary to the picture city leaders may paint, Flint resident Frank Robertson said there is a lot of despair among residents in the city.

Robertson said in late May, he had some kids shooting at his truck because they thought he disrespected them.

He said youth wouldn't be into so many negative activities if there were more things for them to be involved in outside of school.

"The city is ours," said Robertson, whose family owns Ain't It Clean car wash on the city's north side. "They ain't runnin' none of us off."

Driving up employment

Despite its warts, Flint, or "Vehicle City," has received some positive national acclaim.

In April, Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine named the Flint metropolitan area as one of the top 11 Comeback Cities for this year. The report said the Flint area could see job growth of 2.6 percent in 2011 with the automotive and health care and life sciences industries providing a proverbial shot in the arm.

Walling said the city completed its largest nonautomotive economic development project ever last year when Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy said it would move its headquarters to Flint and add more than 1,000 jobs in the city in next five years.

Yet the city of Flint reported a nearly 19 percent unemployment rate in May, according to labor data from the state of Michigan. The highest Northwest Indiana jobless rate is in East Chicago at 12 percent.

"We have a very long way to go in Flint and in Genesee County to match the national unemployment rates," Walling said. "But things are better."

Flint resident Phil Walker said community transformation can be spurred by providing work force preparation and skills training to people from hard-hit economic areas. Walker, regional training director for Flint Strive, said communities no longer can ignore populations of ex-offenders or people with low incomes and few job skills.

Nearly 2,400 residents have completed the program since 2001, and about 86 percent of graduates have been placed in jobs, according to the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

"I'd rather meet them with hope than at Meijer and they have a gun," Walker said at a National Employment Law Project conference discussing ways to transform communities last month.

A new dynamic

City officials and residents hope the Flint area can retain its base of young, educated residents with the growth of college campuses.

More than 33,000 students were studying at colleges and universities such as University of Michigan-Flint in Genesee County in the fall of 2010, according to the Genesee Regional Chamber of Commerce. If the number of students was a municipality, it would be larger than the city of East Chicago.

With more students in the area, there is also a corresponding resurgence of people moving downtown to live. Weiland, of the county Land Bank Authority, said about 1,000 more people live downtown now than three years ago.

New restaurants, retail and other business ventures have opened in a piecemeal fashion to create a more vibrant downtown area in recent years.

But the stigma of Flint's being dangerous lingers. Jared Hurd, who co-owns Vertical Ambition performance dance company with his wife, Alisyn, downtown, said it's difficult to attract dancers from the city and suburbs to train at a Flint-based studio.

"Unless you're selling drugs, buying drugs or gang-affiliated, no one is bothering you," Hurd said. "People complain it's too dangerous ... it's lame."

But some residents question Flint's long-term viability in being able to keep young talent in the city. Census figures show a graying population, and residents say youth and young adults often flee to cities such as Detroit, Chicago or those perceived as not being in decline.

"How are you gonna get a college town when you're closing down all the high schools?" Robertson said.

State Rep. Jim Ananich, D-Flint, said it's not about what schools open and close, but how many world-class schools the community has that provides children a quality education.

For Randall, education for youths and adults is the key to unlocking economic and neighborhood development. If people were to see they could attain higher-wage jobs, it could work as a crime deterrent.

Working on multiple community efforts is important for her because she believes future generations for Flint hold the same promise that her slain grandson did. But it's going to take a lot of work to keep enough community members involved to help make progress happen.

"I see Flint as a flourishing city in my vision," Randall said. "I see this is very possible."

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