Turning the Lights Back on in Detroit
Detroit’s economic decay has been closely watched. It’s a gripping narrative. The city stood for decades as a pillar of industry, harnessing the skilled, creative labor of its locals into a uniquely American manufacturing powerhouse that stood as the “arsenal of democracy” in World War II. Though its fall mirrored the rest of the rust belt, its decline was particularly hard-felt—the Great Recession and decades of waning industrial capacity left the city in near ruin.
Today, Detroit is climbing out from under the rubble of that collapse and working to define itself as an exemplar of the strengthening American economy. A renewed vigor is abuzz around its manufacturing prowess and creative class; with its fiscal house back on track and the return of big capital investments, Detroit is primed to tackle some of the deep-seated problems obstructing its return to form. But they have their work cut out for them.
One of the challenges staring down the city is its outmoded infrastructure, including an antiquated public lighting system. By 2012, over 40 percent of the 80,000 streetlights in Detroit were not functioning, leaving the troubled city mired in darkness. To compound the problem, much of the grid relied on a series of outdated circuits—if one transformer went out, every light in the series went dark.
In essence, “keeping the lights on,” became an overwhelming challenge for Detroit. Plainly, this problem would cripple any major metropolis. Public lighting not only makes neighborhoods livable, but is crucial for travel, street-level retail, workforce participation, safety, and morale. As the Project for Public Spaces puts it, “a great city needs at least ten great districts, each with at least ten great places, which in turn each have at least ten things to do.” Lighting affords the capacity to congregate in public spaces; without it there can be no greatness.
In December 2012, the State of Michigan authorized the establishment of a Public Lighting Authority (PLA) to design and implement a modernization plan for Detroit’s street lighting system. The Authority board tasked Odis Jones with directing the project.
Professionally, Jones has more than 20 years of experience in urban economic development and management throughout the east coast and Midwest. Perhaps more importantly, Jones is a native of Detroit. He grew up on the east side, moving through its public schools and on to Central Michigan’s football team as a star linebacker, leading its 1994 Mid-American Conference championship defense. Combining a graduate degree in public administration with his extensive experience and a personal commitment to his home town’s revitalization, Jones had the requisite passion and expertise to tackle the project of replacing more than 65,000 lights across town.
But Jones faced a major obstacle to securing the necessary financing – his second day on the job the City of Detroit filed for bankruptcy. While the authority is an independent body with its own dedicated funding source, with the city in federal bankruptcy court investors were hesitant to provide the requisite funding for the PLA.
With an established track record in Michigan and municipalities emerging from bankruptcy, Citi had the reputation and clout to reassure investors and raise meaningful capital. Driven by the urgency of the project, Citi committed capital of its own to facilitate the issuance of long-term bonds at very favorable terms. Ultimately, because of those favorable terms the Authority was able to finance $25 million more than its original goal of $160 million, providing funds for 10,000 additional lights.
Flush with the resources needed to execute his vision, Jones’s team has outpaced expectations—the Authority is well over halfway to its goal of relighting the entire city, and has replaced more than 42,000 lights. Localized engineering studies have given the team the resources to discourage copper theft by switching to aluminum wiring, and the PLA is moving away from the faulty series circuit system. The new bulbs being installed are 150-watt equivalent LEDs—more energy efficient and two times brighter than the archaic high-pressure sodium bulbs they replace.
With Citi’s help, the outsized efforts are paying off. Daily life is improving as entrepreneurs, grass roots neighborhood groups, and sustainable market forces revitalize economic development. With the lights on, Detroit can finally get back to being great.
“Young people are moving back in town. Kids are feeling safer when they walk to school, and folks are making investments,” says Jones. “It’s not just streetlights. It’s about a sense of community.”
Clearly, the city will shine brighter because of his work and because of Citi’s leadership in securing the critical funding that is making it possible.