Americans’ trust of the federal government is the lowest it’s been in 40 years. This presidential election has made that clearer than ever.
In Detroit, some residents so distrust their elected officials they’re trying to take some power back with a ballot measure next week.
Emma Lockridge lives next-door to an 8-lane highway and one of the largest industrial operations in Michigan, the Marathon Oil Refinery in Detroit.
“It’s a horrible odor that overwhelms and blankets the community,” Lockridge says. “You wake up coughing and gagging. I often tell people I don’t live near a refinery — I live in a refinery.”
According to the U.S. Census, Detroit is the poorest major city in the country. It’s wrestled with a high foreclosure rate and unemployment. And three years ago, the city filed the nation’s largest municipal bankruptcy.
It has desperately sought to draw in businesses to develop its bare-bones land — to create both tax revenue and jobs.
Over the years, to encourage this, the city has offered millions of dollars in tax breaks to huge companies like Marathon.
But it hasn’t always panned out.
“I knew Detroit was broke, but they basically sold out our community,” Lockridge says. “The homes are worthless. We can’t move out. We’re trapped.”
Lockridge and others think when it comes to these big business deals, the city should have fought better for the community’s needs.
So, a coalition called Rise Together Detroit put a proposal on the ballot leaving it up to voters to decide if they want to change the status quo.
The law would require developers seeking tax incentives for large projects to negotiate benefits — like jobs or environmental protections — with a handful of residents from the area around the project, without the city’s oversight.
Together, the developer and residents would sign a contract called a community benefits agreement.
Armando Carbonell is a senior fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy He says he’s seen other cities trying individual agreements.
“I’m not aware of anything on quite the level of what’s being considered in Detroit,” Carbonell says.
In cities such as New York and Los Angeles, some developers of large projects, like sport arenas, have already been doing this voluntarily to avoid controversy.
Business leader Sandy Baruah of the Detroit Regional Chamber says requiring some developers to enter into these contracts would have a chilling effect and end up costing residents more jobs.
“It puts the steering wheel of development in the hands of unelected, unaccountable, very amorphous community groups,” Baruah says. “I know very few businesses that would allow that to happen.”
Detroit City Councilman Scott Benson says he understands the sentiment behind this ballot measure, but he’s not in favor of it.
“What you’re actually asking the city of Detroit to do, and its residents to do, is to approve basically that the citizens of Detroit become a guinea pig for an untested, unproven model,” Benson says. “And what you’re really going to end up doing is chasing development away from the city of Detroit.”
So Benson and other city leaders have offered an alternative on the ballot that would, among other things, require both developers and elected officials to be a part of discussions with residents.
Whatever the outcome Tuesday, people in Detroit are hoping they’ll end up with a defined role in the city’s renaissance.