By Shea Howell

November 15, 2015

The Detroit City Council is finally going to consider a Community Benefits Agreement. Business interests oppose it. The right wing legislature has made moves to outlaw such agreements statewide. Roderick Miller, the head of Detroit Economic Growth Corporation has said, “I think it will be the most damaging piece of legislation that the city can have. We still haven’t hit critical mass as it relates to economic expansion in Detroit. This will make sure we don’t hit it.”

Others have called the effort “a shakedown tax, and one Detroit can’t afford to impose” and a quota system.

But this kind of hysterical over-the-top opposition has no basis in reality. Community benefits are widely used around the country. We need such a commitment in Detroit.

A recent Detroit Free Press editorial by Bill Hickey notes that in many cities such agreements are normal. He says, The “One Hill” group in Pittsburgh negotiated a legally binding agreement covering affordable housing, jobs and social justice with a sports stadium. Los Angeles formed the Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) and created a landmark agreement with the expansion of Los Angeles International Airport that set the standard both for community involvement and concrete remedies to improve quality of life for affected families.

These agreements will not stop unequal development, but they will bring an element of fairness to the process. They can become useful tools in garnering benefits to our communities in exchange for large-scale development projects supported by public funds, tax breaks and other public goods. It is a simple premise. If a business wants public money or support, it should guarantee some public benefits in return.

CBAs put the force of law behind what have proven to be empty promises that developments will automatically benefit our communities. They specify tangible outcomes that must be met in exchange for public support of projects.

Just consider the differences between two hockey stadium developments, one in New York and one in Detroit.

In New York the Kingsbridge Armory Redevelopment Alliance is a large sports complex that includes nine hockey rinks. The developers agreed to specific community benefits: All workers would receive a living wage; 51% of all non construction workers would be local workers, with first priority given to underemployed residents of the immediate neighborhood; $8million would be an initial contribution for a fund dedicated to community needs; a grant program would be established to encourage local businesses to employ local workers; green building measures would be used; community access to the athletic facilities would be guaranteed; local business suppliers would be used; and a formal structure of community oversight to advise the group and ensure progress would be established.

In Detroit we have the Red Wing Hockey Stadium claiming public funding for 60% of the $450 million project that will benefit the Ilitch organization. The public share of $261.5 million is projected at best to maybe provide 200 jobs. Maybe. That is it. Nothing about the commitment to the community at large, the people displaced for this development, or the local businesses impacted by it.

Corporations do not have a good record of caring about the communities that support them. Community Benefit Agreements will not solve everything, but they are an essential first step in creating more thoughtful, fair, and just development. The Detroit City Council has the opportunity to move us closer to the kind of city we want. Encourage them to do the right thing.