Economic Engine

Oakland County and metro Detroit have come roaring back from the Great Recession, but the region needs to attract more global investment, jobs, and visitors to keep the momentum going.
Andy Meisner
Andy Meisner

Oakland County’s 1.2 million people, innovative businesses, exemplary schools, and natural amenities make us the national gold standard for places to live, work, and play. Oakland County also sets the standard for good governance with a coveted “AAA” bond rating, a rolling three-year balanced budget, and a fully funded pension fund.

But we have some challenges. As Oakland County treasurer, I invest public funds in local financial institutions, protect property values by fighting foreclosure and the lingering effects of the Great Recession, and am helping rebuild our tax base by returning tax-foreclosed and distressed properties to productive use. The housing crisis took a $14 billion bite out of our real estate values, and I want every one of those dollars back into the pockets of our taxpayers.

Public-private partnerships have been a helpful tool in achieving each of these strategies. For instance, our “Realtor to the Rescue” program partners with real estate agents to utilize their professional expertise to connect families with abandoned homes they can fix up and make their own. The program has been held up nationally as a model for promoting home ownership and stabilizing neighborhoods.

While I am encouraged seeing property values roar back toward pre-recession levels, there are still too many landmark properties throughout the county that are holding back a full resurgence of the regional economy. When the Detroit Lions were featured on “Monday Night Football” on Jan. 1, national audiences were treated to some cringe-worthy commentary and aerial footage of one such property.

Although the Lions’ former home, the Pontiac Silverdome — now abandoned and decaying — was caught in the spotlight, several other major properties also are languishing while awaiting a new life.  The Summit Place Mall in Waterford Township, Northland Mall in Southfield, and the Village at Bloomfield (formerly Bloomfield Park) in Bloomfield Township and Pontiac are just a few such sites. A turnaround of these troubled properties presents an opportunity to rebuild our tax base and build out our region’s “prosperity infrastructure.” What’s more, the Palace of Auburn Hills now faces an uncertain future, having lost its major tenant, the Detroit Pistons, to Detroit.

But these properties don’t have to fall into disrepair.

Not far from the Silverdome is an example of an entrepreneurial vision that pairs intrepid investors and public sector partners, and it could act as a roadmap for others.

Mostly comprised of a former manufacturing plant operated by General Motors, the 87-acre M1 Concourse development on Woodward Avenue at South Boulevard in Pontiac was just weeds and concrete when it was acquired in 2013 from the Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response (RACER) Trust. 

The M1 Concourse team saw opportunity, and today the site has been dramatically transformed into a major regional destination for auto enthusiasts, corporations, professional associations, and invited guests, with more than 250 private garages and a state-of-the-art, 1.5-mile racetrack. What’s more, public amenities such as motorsports-themed stores and restaurants will be added soon.

The M1 Concourse, in synergy with other newly renovated projects in Pontiac — the Flagstar Strand Theater, complemented by a Slows Bar-B-Q and other amenities; the more than $100 million expansion of St. Joseph Hospital; and a blockbuster sale of the Phoenix Center — are major drivers of economic activity for the city, Oakland County, and the region. 

M1 offers a blueprint for other parcels needing a reboot. By combining entrepreneurial vision, capital, and a public-private partnership as M1 Concourse has done, other anchor properties can be turned into engines of economic growth that roar as loudly as the Dodge Vipers racing around the M1 track. Imagine the extraordinary benefit to Oakland County, the region, and the state when Summit Place, Northland, the Silverdome, and the Village at Bloomfield are similarly transformed and put to their highest and best use.

Transforming these keystone properties into winners will be a critical contribution to the new economic landscape of Oakland County and the region, enhancing our appeal to families and businesses from around the world.

Whether it’s positioning Oakland County to be a destination for entrepreneurs and investment or redeveloping anchor properties,
increasingly the solutions for economic development in the 21st century will come from regional strategies. Entrepreneurs clearly get it. Let’s hope regional leaders will do the same and build the necessary partnerships to transform these properties — and our region — to attract global investment and visitors.

Andy Meisner is the Oakland County treasurer, a lawyer, and a former member of the Michigan House of Representatives.