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A bureau within the U.S. Department of Commerce


Detroit: Building Capacity and Opportunity in the Wake of a Crisis

November 22, 2016
Blog post by Nathan Ohle, Senior Advisor at the Economic Development Administration and Michigan native

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Nathan Ohle, Senior Advisor at the Economic Development Administration.

When I hear someone talk about Detroit, I feel a sense of pride, I think of all my friends back home in Michigan, and I feel optimism for my home state and the opportunities that have not been there in decades. When I left Michigan a few years ago to come to Washington, D.C., I never knew that I would again be working on issues in Detroit so quickly, and that the work would be some of the most profound that I would participate in. With this week’s release of the Detroit Federal Working Group’s final report (PDF), I’m proud to have helped lead the effort to better connect the city and the federal government.

The relationship between the federal government and the city of Detroit long preceded my time in DC. In 2011, Detroit was named one of the first Strong Cities, Strong Communities recipients, allowing federal employees to be embedded within City Hall. Detroit filed for bankruptcy in 2013, following the auto industry that had led the way to Michigan’s economic recession. As Detroit’s situation worsened, the Detroit Federal Working Group was formed to help the city build capacity and tap into technical assistance opportunities from a variety of federal agencies.

Detroit has been able to capitalize on this opportunity because of the locally-led structure that was put into place, and because the goal was always to create long-term strategies that would build capacity for the city. In many distressed communities, both urban and rural, capacity is the fundamental issue that holds a region back from growth and prosperity. Without staff, resources and expertise, it is very difficult for a region to provide the type of economic mobility its residents so badly need.

As the only federal agency solely focused on economic development, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) has the unique ability to help distressed communities understand the need to build a comprehensive economic development strategy that provides a roadmap for growth. EDA was able to help the city and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation through both technical assistance and funding to move those strategies forward. EDA has provided grants to build the economic development capacity for Detroit, as well as planning and infrastructure resources to help redevelop areas of the city to create economic mobility and opportunity for multiple areas of the city that have not seen the growth that midtown and downtown Detroit have seen over the past five years.

EDA was not alone in their work on economic development. While I served as the Deputy Director of the Detroit Federal Working Group, I had the privilege of working with colleagues from across more than 20 federal agencies. At the Commerce Department alone, there are satellite offices in Detroit representing the International Trade Administration and the U.S. Patent and Trade Office, and the Minority Business Development Agency has funded a Minority Business Development Center in Detroit, helping minority-owned businesses gain access to capital and technical assistance. The unique ability of the Detroit Federal Working Group to breakdown federal government silos and work more collaboratively is a great model for how the federal government can work to support locally-led strategies across the country.

It was truly a privilege to play a role in this group of talented and focused leaders throughout the federal government, and to see it all come together for a place I call home — Detroit. The city is growing for the first time in more than a decade, but there is still much more work to do to truly create economic mobility for everyone in Detroit. Take a moment to celebrate the work that has already happened, but more importantly, to focus on the work ahead for Detroit and many other communities across the country that are poised for growth.