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Free Press reporter redefines Detroit

John Gallagher, Detroit Free Press reporter, visited SVSU on Jan. 27 to talk about the resurgence of Detroit. He discussed how urban planning and investment made the resurgence possible. Vanguard Photo | Brooke Elward

Veteran Detroit Free Press reporter John Gallagher’s SVSU talk shed light on the “often unnoticed” factors that revitalized Detroit.

The Great Lakes Bay Economic Club invited Gallagher to speak during its Jan. 27 SVSU luncheon, which was sponsored by Infuse Great Lakes Bay.

“… A lot of cities have had similar issues to Detroit,” said Wayne Hoffman, the president of Infuse Great Lakes Bay. “Gallagher started at the Detroit Free Press in 1987, so he has seen the peaks and the valleys of Detroit.”

Gallagher has worked for over 30 years as a reporter in Detroit. He covers economic redevelopment efforts in Detroit for the Free Press and was inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 2017.

Much of his talk centered around his experiences as a reporter and his 2010 book “Re-imagining Detroit: Opportunities for Redefining an American City.”

Gallagher began by discussing the effects of the Detroit 20132014 bankruptcy on the city’s reputation.

“Detroit’s economic situation has flipped dramatically,” he said. “Other urban centers facing problems used to say, ‘At least we’re not Detroit.’ Now Detroit is known for its comeback.”

He discussed how the investments of Dan Gilbert in the city helped repurpose once vacant buildings and create jobs for local talent.

More recently, Ford Motor Company bought the once-abandoned Central Train Depot, which will now be used as a future mobility research center for the company.

Gallagher said Mayor Mike Duggan’s post-bankruptcy reforms are also cited when discussing what made Detroit’s comeback possible.

Gallagher said he believed there were many “smaller changes” that made the resurgence possible, including urban planning.

“We had 100,000 vacant lots,” he said. “This gave Detroit a reputation as a decaying city with high crime.”

Gallagher said the efforts of nonprofits and other philanthropic endeavors made these farms, and other cities used Detroit as an example of how to create their own urban farms.

“Detroit really became a leader in this. Detroit had over 100 urban farms on vacant lots,” he said. “The experts who used to come up to me and ask me to show them the vacant lots are now asking me to show them the urban agricultural farms.”

Post-bankruptcy, Gallagher said the city began to “spin off” operations that were underfunded and poorly managed. This led to the updated KOBO Center and the Riverside Ballroom, he said.

“It happened almost overnight,” he said. “Eastern Market, which was once a place where there weren’t local food vendors and the roof was falling apart is now managed professionally. It’s one of those lively, walkable, delightful places in the city.”

Part of the “spin offs” included abandoning local control of various locations. The most controversial decision was giving Belle Isle Park to the Department of Natural Resources.

“(This) is one of the most important things we did,” he said.

“This only happened because of the bankruptcy,” he said. “It’s in a lot better shape than it used to be.”

Gallagher also credited nonprofits for stepping up in the 2000s and funding revitalization efforts.

“(Nonprofits) began to not only write checks in a different way, but place their liaisons in the area and place experts in the area,” he said.

He said foundations raised $300 million during the Detroit bankruptcy to help save the pieces displayed at Detroit Institute of Art. Their donation was matched by other donors and the state government to keep the DIA running.

“Among the things they help out with are the community nonprofit groups,” he said. “These often grew from volunteer groups to staffs with experts on urban planning and other areas.”

Such groups included Midtown Detroit Inc. and the Southwest Detroit Business Association.

“These neighbor groups have done a great job and brought entrepreneurship as an option for Detroiters,” Gallagher said. “As the automotive industry declined, we didn’t have a climate for entrepreneurship, but they made that possible.”

Volunteer groups and organizations brought to Detroit small business incubators, venture money, angel investors and pitch competitions.

While Gallagher said he believes Detroit has made great progress, he said the city still has a lot of work to do for to complete its post-industrial transformation.

“My point in all this is that the story of Detroit is complex, and what I said just gives you a taste of that complexity,” he said. “We still have a long way to go. … If you have followed the bankruptcy like I have, you will be encouraged by the steps we have taken.”

After his talk, Gallagher answered audience questions about next steps for Detroit’s revitalization, regional transit, crime and other topics.

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