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.
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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.

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