Friday, December 18, 2009

The Electric Car City

Was just reading the Urbanophile's article on Detroit over at Newgeography. It's a thorough analysis of both the city and The Brookings Institute's recent "Plan for Detroit" project. I particularly liked where he pointed out the absurdity of a rail transit system for Detroit as recommended by some analysts. With neither high population density, nor high job density, the core urban area is about as good a candidate for light rail as downtown Menominee.

There are tons of opinions on Detroit, but what's irritating is that I see a lot of advantages there many cities would kill for, but the state is too inept to really take advantage of them. But don't tell me the city's urban decay has anything to do with Coleman Young or Kwame Kilpatrick. Here in DC, we saw rising home values and the beginning of massive gentrification while we had a mayor who smoked crack.

In terms of economic development, Michigan is already bending over for the battery industry, and will do the same for anyone kind enough to put them on any kind of short list. They gave Boston-based A123 Systems $100 million of tax credits for a new plant just outside Detroit, even though the company would never have gotten a quarter as much from Massachusetts. Plus, as the battery supplier for Chrysler's EV, wasn't like A123 needed a reminder to consider Michigan.

In terms of getting businesses to come to Southeastern Michigan without having to pay them $100 million, Detroit and Michigan must stop with the watered-down marketing gibberish that has plagued the state's econ dev efforts during the Granholm years. Detroit should market itself as "the electric car city". The message is believable and would set it apart from the hundreds of counties and cities buying stock photos of lab coat technicians staring at test tubes, and all going on about the same green tech, biotech, "knowledge workers" nonsense.

Electric cars are already a large industry, with excellent growth prospects. Moreover, they pull in the supply chain of energy storage companies, a sector which VCs have fallen head-over-heels in love with.

Blue Springs, Mississippi, where the U.S. Prius factory will be, could copy "the electric car city" slogan, except it's not a city. I know, if Detroit sticks to saying one thing then they run the risk of not diversifying their economy. But saying they do everything hasn't really worked too well. Additionally, every city has a health care industry because it has people who get sick, has a utility industry because it has people who use electricity, not to mention about five different adjectives to place in front of the word "tech".

Detroit has the chance to do something powerful and distinctive. Let's hope it doesn't trade it in for more lab coat guys, pictures of test tubes, or embarrassing campaigns to sell itself as a "cool city".

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