By Shea Howell

July 10, 2016

The battle over a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) for Detroit is intensifying.  Within a few hours after the Department of Elections ruled the CBA could go forward as a ballot question in November, City Councilman Scott Benson jumped into try yet another desperate strategy to confuse voters and block meaningful legislation. He said he is offering a compromise.

People have been fighting for a CBA strategy for nearly a decade. The purpose of a CBA is to ensure that when public money is used to support private development, communities receive some direct benefit. The ordinance gives community residents a say in how developments impact their neighborhoods and their daily lives. As City Council President Brenda Jones wrote in a recent letter to the Detroit Free Press supporting CBA’s,

“We need to raise our standards of what we deserve when we invest our land or tax dollars. We deserve better than trinkets that don’t hold up after the development is complete.”

The ordinance requires developers who receive at least $300,000 in public subsidies for projects of $15 million or more to meet with community members and agree upon the benefits for the community in exchange for public dollars.

While jobs for both construction and operations are a key concerns, communities are also concerned about quality of life issues. Neighbors want to ensure support for local businesses, consideration for environmental impacts, and support for neighborhood activities. Rashida Talib of the Sugar Law Center has supported the idea since she was a state legislator. Nearly a decade ago she heard from residents of the Delray area where major expansion of the new international bridge was unfolding. They worry that the increased truck traffic would further damage their already stressed neighborhood.

She said, “Every time I think about a community benefits agreement for the bridge specifically, I think about it being a model bridge that is going to have an air quality program or a volunteer program to get trucks retrofitted. One of the things I heard residents ask is, “Rashida, for the money that they’re getting for the land, could they get bus covers?” Those are the kinds of basic needs that a community who is going to have large transportation pressures are thinking about.”

The idea of a CBA makes sense.  Yet, it is opposed by the Mayor, the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation. There was even an effort by the State Legislature to outlaw such ordinances. In large part this effort was stopped because of the strong support for CBA’s given by the Michigan Black Chamber of Commerce, representing thousands of local neighborhood business. These are the kinds of businesses a CBA would most directly help stay in the city.

Fears fostered by the corporate elite that CBA’s would drive out development are not true.  We already have voluntary CBA’s working across the city. Neighbors in Brightmoor negotiated with Meijer for jobs and other community benefits when the new store came to Northwest Detroit. The West Grand Boulevard Collaborative struggled for years to engage Henry Ford Health System (HFHS) in negotiations over a massive warehouse construction. Whole Foods negotiated hiring goals, vendors and small minority business recruitment.

This spring, Idea City negotiated a CBA with artists and activists for their international project here. They said the experience was so valuable to them, they will use the process in all other cities around the globe where they create exhibits.

Community Benefits help everyone think more fully and consciously about the relationship between businesses and the communities that support them. An ordinance provides a tool to give these conversations legal standing and provide for ongoing accountability.

Councilman Benson’s compromise does none of this. It is a weak effort to confuse voters and reduce thoughtful discussion to essentially one public meeting.

If the councilman does not withdraw his so called compromise, he can be sure it will be rejected by voters who are tired of efforts to block every democratically developed step toward a more equitable city.