Friday, September 20, 2013

How the City of Detroit can learn from the Houston Astros

No, not the Detroit Tigers.
I mean the actual city of Detroit.  Bear with me for a second.

For years, the Houston Astros refused to rebuild, even when faced with the specter of fading franchise icons like Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Roy Oswalt, and Lance Berkman.  Their owner, Drayton McLane, refused to face the inevitable and instead through bad money after good.  At McLane's direction, the entry draft was overlooked and draft picks wasted.  Prospects were traded away for any stopgap to help try and keep the Astros afloat.

In 2011, McLane finally sold the team to Jim Crane, who brought in Jeff Luhnow from the Cardinals to be his General Manager.  The edict came down swiftly from the top:

Tear it down and start all over.

Luhnow took those words to heart and then some.  Not only did he tear the figurative building down, he tore out the foundation, set fire to the property, and then is building from the ashes.  Here's the Opening Day payrolls for the Astros over the last 5 years:

2009 -- $102M
2010 -- $92M
2011 -- $76M
2012 -- $60M
2013 -- $26M

That payroll has dropped even more through the course of this year, as Bud Norris, Jose Veras, and some others have been shed.  No player on the Astros' current roster makes more than Erik Bedard's $1.1M.  Their payroll is approximately $14M of active players, with the Pirates' Wandy Rodriguez adding $5M on to that (plus $5.5M in 2014).

But all of these trades have yielded a passel of interesting prospects in return.  Additionally, the Astros have fully utilized their draft budgets to the fullest extent in recent years.  Their farm system is widely considered to be a Top 3 farm system with a great potential rotation in the minors, coupled with some recent farm graduates like Jarred Cosart and Brett Oberholtzer.  And they get to potentially draft a potential ace in Carlos Rodon next June.

So what does this have to with Detroit?

Instead of trying to hang on and make it work with patches here and there, the City of Detroit must be allowed to be torn down and start over.  The statistics are frightening:
40% of street lights are either off or not functional, so that Detroit doesn't have to pay for electricity
Buses may have wait times of 2 hours or more
911 calls are hardly ever answered on time
The population lost 200,000 people from 2000 to 2010
The city has a long term debt of $18 to $20 BILLION

Efforts are underway to shrink the city's footprint by demolishing vacant homes and turning them into green space, but these are only half measures.  There need to be a commitment to relocating and then demolishing entire neighborhoods and sectors of the city.

Shrink the city to a manageable size so that the police force (shrunk from 4,000 to 2,600 officers) can safely patrol it.  So that emergency providers can do their jobs efficiently.  Detroit needs to find an alternate industry, besides the auto industry, to build with.  Perhaps something in the green energy industry to take advantage of the abandoned manufacturing areas and workers skilled in manufacturing.

Once the city is condensed down to a population-dense size, start to rebuild new mixed income housing to attract the youth back to the city, but also give quality housing to the elderly and poor that need it.  Re-invest in the education system (a comparison to the Astros and the draft) and realize that the City of Detroit is not going to be great again for 20 years.

If Detroit (and the state of Michigan) can understand these things and commit to them, the rebuilding process can start in full.  That won't help things in 2013, but it give Detroit hope in 2033 that it will be a great city again.

Or else it will look just like the Robocop movies.

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