A Metro Detroit Business Owner on the Talent-Repelling Effect of Sprawl

The owner of a patent law firm in recession-battered metro Detroit may have to leave Michigan, and it’s not because of the taxes, says Andrew Basile, Jr. His firm, which employs 40 people in the city of Troy, spends “more on copiers and toner than we do on state taxes.” The problem, Basile says, is that the firm can’t attract talent to Michigan because of the “poor quality of place” and “car culture” that prevails in the region.

In a letter to nonprofit Michigan Future, Inc., Basile vents his frustration with a leadership climate that has gone “berserk on suburbia.” (Basile is also the brains behind the Woodward Project, an initiative aimed at developing a vibrant livable center for Detroit.)

This instructive letter, sent by email under the subject line “Why our growing firm may have to leave Michigan,” explains how places like Detroit pay an economic price for lagging behind other regions on livability. Reprinted with permission of the author:

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Our recruiters are very blunt. They say it is almost impossible to recruit to Michigan without paying big premiums above competitive salaries on the coasts.

People – particularly affluent and educated people – just don’t want to live here. For example, below are charts of migration patterns based on IRS data. Black is inbound, red is outbound. Even though the CA economy is in very bad shape, there is still a mass migration to San Francisco vs. mass outbound migration from Oakland County (most notably to cities like SF, LA, Dallas, Atlanta, NY, DC, Boston, and Philly). San Fran only seems to be losing people to Portland, a place with even more open space and higher quality urban environments.

Net migration to San Francisco: The black lines represent inward migration and the red lines outward migration.

The situation for Michigan is even worse than it seems because those lines are net migration…

Net migration from Oakland County, Michigan.

There’s a simple reason why many people don’t want to live here: it’s an unpleasant place because most of it is visually unattractive and because it is lacking in quality living options other than tract suburbia. Some might call this poor ‘quality of life.’ A better term might be poor ‘quality of place.’ In Metro Detroit, we have built a very bad physical place. We don’t have charming, vibrant cities and we don’t have open space. What we do have are several thousand miles of streets that look like this:

Having moved here from California five years ago, I will testify that Metro Detroit is a very hard place to live. Ask any former Detroiter in California, and you will hear a consistent recital of the flaws that make Metro Detroit so unattractive. Things are spread too far apart. You have to drive everywhere. There’s no mass transit. There are no viable cities. Lots of it is really ugly, especially the mile after mile of sterile and often dingy suburban strip shopping and utility wires that line our dilapidated roads (note left, below). There’s no nearby open space for most people (living in Birmingham, it’s 45 minutes in traffic to places like Proud Lake or Kensington). It’s impossible to get around by bike without taking your life in your hands. Most people lead sedentary lifestyles.

There’s a grating ‘car culture’ that is really off-putting to many people from outside of Michigan. I heard these same complaints when I left 25 years ago. In a quarter century, things have only gotten considerably worse. Ironically, California is supposed to be a sprawling place. In my experience they are pikers compared to us. Did you know that Metro Detroit is one half the density of Los Angeles County?

The fundamental problem, it seems to me, is that our region has gone berserk on suburbia to the expense of having any type of nearby open space or viable urban communities, which are the two primary spatial assets that attract and retain the best human capital. For example, I noted sadly the other day that the entire Oakland Country government complex was built in a field five miles outside of downtown Pontiac. I find that decision shocking. What a wasted opportunity for maintaining a viable downtown Pontiac, not to mention the open space now consumed by the existing complex. What possibly could have been going through their minds? Happily, most of the men who made those foolish decisions 30 or 40 years ago are no longer in policy-making roles.

A younger generation needs to recognize the immense folly that they perpetrated and begin the costly, decades long task of cleaning up the wreckage. These are problems, sure, but they could be easily overcome, especially in Oakland County, which is widely recognized as one of the best-run large counties in the country. But despite our talents and resources, the region’s problem of place may be intractable for one simple, sorry reason: Our political and business leadership does not view poor quality of place as a problem and certainly lacks motivation to address the issue.

Indeed, Brooks Patterson — an otherwise extraordinary leader — claims to love sprawl and says Oakland County can’t get enough of it. These leaders presume that the region has ‘great’ quality of life (apparently defined as big yards, cul de sacs and a nearby Home Depot). In their minds, we just need to reopen a few more factories and all will be well. The cherished corollary to this is that Michigan and Metro Detroit have an ‘image’ problem and that if only people knew what great things were, they would consider living or investing here. The attitude of many in our region is that our problems are confined to Detroit city while the suburbs are thought to be lovely.

We don’t have a perception problem, we have a reality problem. Most young, highly talented knowledge workers from places like Seattle or San Francisco or Chicago find the even the upper end suburbs of Metro Detroit to be unappealing. I think long term residents including many leaders are simply so used to the dreary physical environment of southeast Michigan that it has come to seem normal, comfortable and maybe even attractive. Which is fine so long as we have no aspiration to attract talent and capital from outside our region.

My fears were confirmed when I began trying to gather local economic development literature to use as a recruiting tool. The deficits which so dog our region are sometimes heralded by this literature as assets. For example, some boosters trumpet our ‘unrivaled’ freeway system as if freeways and the sprawl they engender are ‘quality of life’ assets. In San Francisco, the place sucking up all the talent and money, they have removed — literally torn out of the ground — two freeways because people prefer not to have them. I noted one ‘Quality of Life’ page of a Detroit area economic development website featured a prominent picture of an enclosed regional shopping mall! Yuck. It’s theater of the absurd.

The people who put together that website must live in a different cultural universe from the high income/high education people streaming out of Michigan for New York, Chicago, and California. Not only is there no plan to address these issues, I fear that the public and their elected leaders in Michigan don’t even recognize the problem or want change. We have at least one bright spot in the nascent urban corridor between Pontiac and Ferndale, which is slowly building a critical mass of walkable urban assets. At the same time, there’s no coordinated effort to develop this. Indeed, MDOT officials lie awake at night thinking of ways to thwart the efforts of local communities along Woodward to become more walkable. Another symptom of the region’s peculiar and self-destructive adoration of the automobile. Even though the Big Three are a tiny shadow of their former selves, Michigan is still locked in the iron grip of their toxic cultural legacy.

I’d like to hang on another five years. I feel like we’re making a difference. But by the same token, I don’t see any forward progress or even a meaningful attempt at forward progress. It’s almost like the people running things are profoundly disconnected from the reality that many if not most talented knowledge workers find our region’s paradigm of extreme suburbanization to be highly unattractive. It seems to me that we are halfway through a hundred year death spiral in which the forces in support of the status quo become relatively stronger, as people with vision and ambition just give up and leave. As we descend this death spiral, we must in my mind be approaching the point of no return, where the constituency for reform dwindles below a critical threshold and the region’s path of self destruction becomes unalterable.

Thank you for considering my views. I welcome any opportunity to be of help to any efforts you may have to fix this.

Andrew Basile, Jr.

Andrew R. Basile, Jr.
Young Basile Hanlon & MacFarlane, P.C.
228 Hamilton Avenue, Suite 300
Palo Alto, California 94301