Sparking Change in Flint

Posted by Zach Frechette

Dayne Walling is the newly elected, 35-year-old mayor of one of America's most famously failing cities. Can this Flint, Michigan native save his beloved hometown? When GM closed its factories in Flint, Michigan, the city was plunged into a period of darkness-famously depicted in the original Michael Moore documentary, Roger and Me-that has lasted for nearly 20 years. Widespread unemployment, plunging property values, and unchecked violence are just a few of the problems that continue plague this troubled town. Mayor Walling spoke to GOOD about how he plans to change all that.GOOD: Can you give me a brief history of how you ended up as the mayor of Flint?DAYNE WALLING: I won election in August, 2009, in a special election to replace our previously elected mayor-Don Williamson-who resigned under threat of a recall in February, 2009. He was first elected in 2003. He was re-elected in 2007-I had run against him in that regular election and lost by 581 votes, so he was very narrowly elected-and he promptly ran up a large budget deficit of over $10 million for the city of Flint, which has a general fund of about $65 million-so a substantial budget deficit. On those grounds, and some other long standing concerns about handling of the cities legal liabilities and personnel issues, and lack of any transformative economic development, over 16,000 people signed a petition for him to be recalled.G: You're a young guy, a Rhodes Scholar, a Truman Fellow, you've lived abroad. In short, you probably could have gone anywhere and done anything you wanted. How did you decide you wanted to become the mayor of Flint?DW: I was doing work in local governments and community organizing and progressive public policy in other cities-Washington, D.C., and then Minneapolis-and it finally occurred to me that the city that needed change the most was my own home town. I was born and raised in Flint, and graduated from Flint Central High School in 1992. My parents still live in Flint. My grandmother still lives here. So my wife and I spent over a year coming to a decision about when the right time to move home would be. And we moved in the spring of 2006. That fall, my son started kindergarten in Flint and became the fourth generation in my family to go to Flint public schools.G: Flint became famous in Roger in Me. What's happened since then?DW: It's now been 20 years since Roger and Me first premiered-and I was there at Showcase Cinemas for the world premiere. And not enough in the city has changed, in my view, since then. [But] there has been a very dedicated group of citizens all across the city in their block clubs and neighborhood associations, and a core of civic leaders in our colleges and hospitals and downtown businesses that have created some serious signs of progress. The way I think about it is the city-while statistically it may resemble what it was in the mid- and late-1980s-instead of being on the downhill decline, we're now on the uphill climb out of a very deep and painful transition that the city has gone through from an entirely General Motors-based town to a more diverse and green 21st century economy.G: You've described the city as "an American tragedy." How do you plan to change that?DW: Flint has needed a sustainability coalition for a long time. The whole 20th century we were living on an unsustainable economic model, and now we need state and federal partners to help genuinely move us forward. So we're looking for reuses for the brownfield sites that have been left by the vacant General Motors factories, and they'll be around intermodal transportation-moving freight from road to rail to air. We're building around our institutions of higher education that are located in proximity to downtown-the University of Michigan has a branch here at Flint. While the Ann Arbor campus literally has no land left to expand, we have acres and acres of vacant and undervalued property that the university system could acquire [to] accommodate the thousands of new students that I'm sure it will be educating as the 21st century economy continues to require a more educated work force.G: What are your favorite cities and what new ideas from them are you integrating into your platform?DW: I have followed the transformation in a city like Pittsburgh, that now doesn't make a single pound of steel within its boundaries. That's an example of a community that was also heavily dependent on an industry that flourished earlier in the 20th century. So there are some good lessons there on how you focus on neighborhoods, how you leverage universities, how you reinvent a downtown. Pittsburgh is a bigger place than Flint, so we're not able to just cut and paste those lessons to what we're doing here. But it's an inspirational example of radical economic change that can be accomplished.As far as looking at the step by step process of going about leading that change, we liked and followed the work that mayor Jay Williams has done in Youngstown, Ohio. Youngstown is much more similar in terms of its size, it's a number of years ahead of flint in terms of its transformation. I've had a chance to talk to him and we'll certainly be looking at the lessons learned from their process about the high level of citizen engagement and the buy-in that's required from city council and other key stakeholders as they crafted what's widely recognized as an effective master plan that dealt seriously with this declining population problem.G: What's the horizon for real change?DW: My goal is that by the time this community reaches 2020, that it will again be a prosperous community where there's opportunity across the whole city for people of all ages, races, and backgrounds. And what it's going to take to get there is two to three years of work to stabilize the system and create a strong foundation for those deeper transformations to take place. My goal is to stabilize the city's budget, to stabilize our housing markets. When you have a patient that's suffered a critical injury, the first thing you have to do is stop the bleeding. Then you can start to assess the other injuries, and eventually get into the rehabilitation where you come out bigger and stronger than when you went in to the accident.Photo (cc) by Flickr user Karpov Wrecked the Train. Read More