Months of inspiration for government officials and urban planners are coming to a head in Detroit with the recent introduction of the Future City initiative. Next on the city council’s agenda is a decision on the proposal to sell the Belle Isle park to entrepreneurs for $1 billion. Real estate developer Rodney Lockwood has pitched the idea of the sale of the beloved park in order for business-types, like himself, to turn its 982 acres into a free-market paradise. The specifics of Lockwood’s plans can be found on the proposed commonwealth's new website.
The Commonwealth of Belle Isle does not seem very likely as the Detroit City Council even seems uninterested in offers from the State to lease it. However, the idea of underused land in Detroit being turned into special economic zones may hold water. Lockwood’s dream of the island as “an economic and social laboratory” is similar to the ideas of New York University economist Paul Romer, who is marketing his idea for “charter cities” to underdeveloped countries around the world. Charter cities are areas with unused land where countries (or cities) can basically start over; they allow for new economic policies to be tested on a small scale and may provide incentives for governments to reform.
Special development regions, as they’re being called by the Honduran government Romer has partnered with, are essentially the basis for China’s exponential growth in the last half century, with new laws, their own currency, and lower taxes, all designed to spur economic expansion. One tip Detroit could take from the Honduran charter city initiative is the implementation of a transparency commission to cut down on worries over corruption. Romer’s theories are important because the Earth’s population is becoming increasingly centered in cities and it is important that those cities continue to provide good economic prospects for their citizens.
Engineering Romer’s charter city concept to fit Detroit and its Belle Isle may be difficult facing opposition from a State government bent on imposing Emergency Manager laws, an opposite solution on the development spectrum. Economic incubation organizations and areas in Detroit like Tech Town are helping to provide entrepreneurial know-how to startups and the spirited debate over Belle Isle is not yet over.
What sort of specialized economic efforts would you like to see in Detroit in the future?
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