Archives for the month of: June, 2009
Dave Bing and Kevin Johnson have something in common besides their former careers as pro basketball players — both have recently been elected mayors of major U.S. cities: Bing in Detroit and Johnson in Sacramento. Both men also find themselves leading during a time of  declining fortunes in their respective cities, with heavy expectations from constituents that their respective successes on the basketball floor will translate into economic recovery in the municipal arena.Many political observers are asking this very question — whether Bing and Johnson can offer a much-needed economic bounce to two of our nation’s most prominent cities. Known for his exploits with the Detroit Pistons, Bing was elected in May to serve out the remaining term of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who resigned from office amid a much publicized romantic tryst with a political aide.

Bing hopes that his short list of accomplishments will buoy his hopes of capturing a full four-year term via a general election in November, if, that is, he successfully achieves a primary election victory in August. Bing has a monumental task ahead of him. Detroit, the nation’s 11th largest city, continues to reel from the collapse of the auto industry. The unemployment rate is currently hovering around 20%, and there has been a mass exodus of both residents and businesses over the past 18 months. Adding to the city’s uphill climb is the legacy of wrongdoing and corruption that left Detroit with an ugly stain: first the vitriolic leadership of former mayor Coleman Young, to whom many attribute Detroit’s fall from grace, and second, Kilpatrick’s error in judgment.

In Sacramento, where Kevin Johnson now holds court, the parallels to Detroit’s economic free-for-all are similar, yet not as pronounced. With a population of 400,000 in the city proper (and nearly 2 million in the immediate surrounding area), Sacramento is the capital city of  California — the 7th largest economy of the world. The challenge in this town? Cutbacks in the hours, pay, and jobs of thousands of state workers, many of whom are based in Sacramento. The state is bleeding red ink, attributed to the global economic downtown as well as poor fiscal accountability on the part of the political cronies at the state capital. On top of this, add the mortgage crisis. In 2008, Sacramento was among the top-ten cities in terms of per-capita home foreclosure rates in the nation, creating the perfect storm for a struggling city.

Johnson, who beat out the two-term mayoral incumbent, seemingly has the heart and the vision to steer Sacramento’s fortunes in the right direction. A hometown hero, he grew up in Sacramento’s Oak Park community and had an illustrious basketball career at the University of California at Berkeley before reaching pro-basketball all-star status with the Phoenix Suns. Upon retiring from basketball, Johnson returned to Sacramento to revitalize his Oak Park neighborhood, which has been steadily besieged by poverty and crime.

Unfortunately Mayor Johnson has yet to gain traction on his visionary efforts. He has been dogged by persistent allegations regarding financial misuse of government funding at St. HOPE Academy, a nonprofit charter school that he founded. In his first few months in office, he also petitioned for a strong-mayor form of government, which would have allowed him increased authority over citywide budgets, hiring, and city council matters. However he neglected to consult council members about this plan — a misstep that aroused anger and talk of betrayal.

There is, thankfully, a bright side. Both Bing and Johnson have shown leadership and tasted success while treading the hardwood floors of NBA arenas — qualities that could serve as  catalysts for reviving their respective cities. And both cities have strong structural elements that can spark a forward surge. Take for example Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, the 12th busiest airport in the U.S. and one of the busiest in the world. To spur growth in the Detroit metro region, plans are under way to create a business development hub around the airport — a zone known as an “aerotropolis.” While estimates suggest that this project is likely 10 years away from completion, it is projected to create upwards of 64,000 jobs and $10 billion annually in indirect economic activity.

Sacramento is also poised for growth, which is good news for Johnson. Long stigmatized as a stagnant, capital city lagging far behind major markets like Los Angeles and San Francisco, Sacramento is considered by many as nothing more than a stop-off point between Lake Tahoe and the Bay Area. Sacramento has an unusual demographic makeup and a midwestern feel, a point underscored by L.A. Lakers’ coach Phil Jackson, who frequently refers to it as a redneck city.

Contrary to the world according to Phil, Sacramento is quite ethnically rich. According to a Harvard University study conducted several years ago, Sacramento was proclaimed America’s Most Diverse City. The area also boasts an emerging central-city zone called Midtown, home to many restaurants, eclectic coffee houses and retail shops, as well as a vibrant art scene. There are also redevelopment plans afoot that promise to boost downtown activity and create much-needed tax revenues for further growth and expansion.
View of Downtown Sacramento From U.S. Bank Building

In the end, though, what these two mayors most need to focus on is rebranding the image of their cities — one an old industrial, rust-belt city and the other a sleepy state capital. Both efforts will need major initiatives to diversify their economies: beyond the auto industry in Detroit’s case and beyond state jobs in Sacramento’s. Bing and Johnson adeptly kept their respective eyes on the ball during their pro careers; I remain optimistic that they and their teams can handle the bouncing fiscal ball and lead Detroit and Sacramento onward to an economic championship.

Among those engaged in the sustainable downtown movement, the chatter these days is about a Pacific Northwest city known more for its rainy days than its livability. I am of course referring to Portland, Oregon. And all of the acclaim it has been receiving for its model practices is for good reason.

I recently traveled again to Portland, a short one-hour flight from my home in Sacramento. Cheap round trip airfare and inexpensive lodging at a hotel in the heart of downtown made for a quick and ideal jaunt. Oregon merits another gold star for cost-conscious budgets like mine — it has no sales tax, which meant my wallet was barely impacted from this brief excursion.

So what makes downtown Portland such a desirable locale? For starters, walkability and safety — key elements to generating foot traffic in any central-city area. There is also an enormous amount of civic pride pulsating throughout the area. Everyone I talked to, from bartenders to law enforcement officers, to local university students and seniors, had nothing but good things to say about the quality of life in Portland.

The annual Rose Festival, held the weekend I was there, offered an up-close glimpse of this pride in action. Thousands of locals and out-of-towners lined the streets of downtown for what is widely considered to be the second largest parade in the nation, eclipsed only by Pasadena’s Rose Parade. During the five-hour festivities the downtown core hummed with floats, bands, food vendors and wide-eyed children taking it all in with their parents.

Perhaps most impressive was the ease with which people arrived at and departed from the parade route without the use of cars, thanks in large part to the city’s ultra-efficient light rail train system. Known as the Max, it is long reputed to be the benchmark for urban transportation in the U.S.

One of the defining symbols of Portland’s downtown culture is the infamous Powell’s Books, an independent bookseller that has been in existence since 1971. Housed in buildings that span several city blocks, Powell’s is a boon for readers who possess a voracious appetite for a wide range of used and new books.

A few blocks from Powell’s is the trendy Pearl District, an area that has been redeveloped into a popular enclave for young area professionals. At night this area attracts an urbane, hip crowd that frequents the many of the local dining and entertainment venues in the area. One of my favorite dining establishments in the area, The Blossoming Lotus Cafe, is located adjacent to a yoga studio. One dish I ordered — a vegan stir fry — was so tasty that I had to muster Herculean strength not to to lick the bowl. Walk just a few short blocks and you will discover Jimmy Maks, a jazz club with a stellar reputation. On the evening I visited, Hailey Niswanger, a young, emerging superstar saxophonist, gave a performance that illustrated why Portland has a long history of producing top-name artists and entertainers.

Vegan Stir Fry At The Blossoming Lotus Cafe

Vegan Stir Fry At The Blossoming Lotus Cafe

Of course, Portland is by no means a perfect city. Issues of homelessness are quite evident as you walk the city streets. And the economic downturn appears to be rearing its ugly head in the form of high unemployment and a growing number of boarded up buildings throughout the central-city area. A downtown bartender summed up the response of city inhabitants this way, “Portlanders tend to let things slide off their back. In fact, if a person here has only $10.00 left in their pocket for the month, they are probably going to spend it on food and drinks, which keeps our economy moving.”

In the end, few would dispute the vibrancy of Portland and its downtown. It possesses a well-thought-out infrastructure and a culture that is visionary and forward-thinking — necessary catalysts for downtown central-city sustainability.

Streetscape In Downtown Portland

Streetscape In Downtown Portland