In the winter of 1955, my great-grandparents left the familiarity of their farm in small-town Stallo, Mississippi, and boarded a train for Flint, Michigan with their four young children and dreams in tow. They were one of many African American families who were a part of the Great Migration — seeking an opportunity to employ their ingenuity and work ethic in rustbelt cities like Flint, the birthplace of General Motors. My great grandfather, a WWII veteran, found renewed pride in working for GM and climbed the ranks to become a part of America’s middle-class.
It isn’t news that Flint is no longer the booming Vehicle City that it was during the height of the Rust Belt’s automotive industry. In fact, you cannot say the word ‘Flint’ without thinking of the ongoing water crisis or documentaries on poverty and crime in the city. Although socioeconomic issues and the water crisis present great challenges, the people of Flint are diligent and there is an optimistic view that Flint can make a comeback– a story that we don’t hear about enough. As the city works on making a rebound, US domestic and foreign policies will play a critical role in whether Flint and other Rust Belt cities with similar histories can recover.
In a conversation with Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce Director of Economic Development Tyler Rossmaessler, he spoke optimistically about Flint’s economic potential— “We are a great city, we are proud, we are moving.” Rossmaessler identified Flint’s geography (the city’s proximity to major cities like Detroit and Chicago, and connection to Canada and Mexico by Interstate 69), university presence (both University of Michigan and Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine have campuses in Flint), cultural assets, and manpower as drivers of economic development. Community partners, companies, and local businesses are working on leveraging these strengths through investing in major manufacturing, entrepreneurship and automation projects:
Manufacturing. Flint was the home of Buick City, General Motors’ largest manufacturing complex in the United States before it shut down in 1999. The 360-acre lot remained vacant until recently, when key community and state partners decided to invest in two large-scale projects that will create jobs. The first, an Eco-Industrial park, is projected to create 300 jobs. The second, a 156,000 square mile seat manufacturing facility owned by the Lear Corporation, could create 430 new jobs.
Entrepreneurship. A Flint-based ventures capital firm called Skypoint Ventures recently renovated a historic downtown building known as the Ferris Bros. building, turning the seven-floor, 46,000 square foot space into an “innovation hub” called the Flint Ferris Wheel. The building provides a co-working space to local businesses and it is also the home of 100K Ideas, a non-profit that empowers college students with backgrounds in graphic design, engineering and project management to help local entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground.
Automation. Kettering University, one of the nation’s leading STEM schools, invested in a Mobility Research Center, an outdoor lab space dedicated to the research of automation and the development of autonomous vehicles as well as hybrid and electric vehicle technologies.
Partnerships between community organizations and businesses are key to Flint’s revitalization. It is also important to consider the impact that US public policy and international politics will have on local efforts to revitalize cities like Flint.
During a Trump Tower press conference last fall, President Trump said that the Administration aims to spend a lot on “fixing” the inner cities. The Administration has focused on broadening the role of federal agencies in addressing illegal immigration, drug trafficking. The President’s proposed budget cuts for FY 2019 would cut funding to the Department of Education significantly, while providing major support for private school vouchers. If passed, the budget cuts would also affect social welfare programs, funding for Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant (which Flint has received in the past) as well as substantial cuts to Environmental Protection Agency funding, which could negatively impact the restoration of Flint’s water system and water safety in other communities.
This policy agenda would significantly undercut the resources necessary to restore vulnerable communities and would also fail to support the community partnerships that are creating new opportunities for residents. Fostering partnerships like those developing in Flint while investing in workers’ professional development should be a policy priority. Rossmaessler listed a shortage of STEM talent as one of the major challenges to further economic development in the area: “CNC machining, welding, engineering, IT are in demand and we don’t have enough supply.” He also pointed out that many residents struggle because they do not own a car to get them to and from local jobs, hinting at the amount of financial constraint some Flint families endure. As Harry Krejsa, former Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security writes in his report Heartland Security, federal programs like the Trade Adjustment Assistance program (TAA) should expand their scope to include career counseling for those transitioning from one industry to another and devote more resources to help workers build skills if they have been displaced by changes in global trade dynamics.
Thinking about how international trade negotiations and foreign direct investment impact communities like Flint is also important. According to NAFSA: Association of International Educator’s 2016-2017 report for Michigan’s 5th congressional district, roughly 1600 international students are studying in the Flint area, contributing $51.2 million to the local economy and supporting 304 jobs. Michigan Economic Development Corporation reports that the Flint metropolitan statistical area has received $28 Million for two automotive projects over the past five years from the United Kingdom and China in Foreign Direct Investment, which has created 119 jobs. Michigan is ranked third amongst states with the most exports to Mexico and as mentioned earlier, Flint is a NAFTA nexus because the city is connected to Mexico and Canada by Interstate 69. Given the significance of international trade and people-to-people exchange to economic growth in Flint, there is a lot of concern about how tariffs on Chinese goods, NAFTA negotiations, and the United States’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership will affect the city and the state of Michigan. One of the most recent concerns stems from the Trump Administration’s plans to apply tariffs to Chinese goods. In Genesee County (where Flint is located) soybean processing is an important industry and there is growing concern amongst Michigan’s farmers about the possible ramifications of Chinese tariffs on US soybeans.
The future of Flint and other Rustbelt cities are closely tied to both domestic and foreign affairs, and community partnerships, as well as local industries, will benefit greatly from policy that is sensitive to this connection. Much more attention should be given to the efforts of local businesses, foundations, colleges and other local partners to move their cities in the direction of a comeback through job creation and provision of resources for hurting workers. Cities like Flint that have a history of persistence, grit, and a spirit for reinvention don’t need to be “fixed,” but instead should be uplifted by policy.