Detroit Then and Now: What a Difference a Year Makes at the Mackinac Policy Conference

post thumbnail image

Image credit: Sandra Svoboda

A look back at what leaders said about Detroit at Mackinac in 2014, and what they’re saying today.

Tweet This

The famed Mackinac Policy Conference is put on by the Detroit Regional Chamber, so it’s not surprising the city is a central focus of the conference agenda.

Of course, there’s also that Southeast Michigan is the state’s major population and economic center, and that Detroit wrapped up history’s biggest municipal bankruptcy case just a few months ago.

Some of the major players in the Chapter 9 are on the Island again, and what they’re saying this year is a bit different than what they brought to the stage last year.

Here’s a look at what some of bankruptcy’s biggest players said at the 2014 event and where things stand now.

Note: We heard from Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Gov. Rick Snyder on the conference’s opening day. The judges and the former emergency manager speak Thursday.



In 2014, then-newly elected Mike Duggan gave a rousing speech at the Mackinac Policy Conference about the future of the city, clearly communicating he could manage Detroit without Orr’s presence and authority as emergency manager.

Focused on improving lighting, blight removal, job creation, opportunities for youth, and reducing emergency response times, Duggan infected the crowd at the Mackinac Policy Conference with enthusiasm for the city.

He was widely praised by a crowd that believed Duggan could lead the city into an era of revitalization and reinvestment once the bankruptcy case wrapped up in court.


This year, Duggan gave the Mackinac Policy Conference’s keynote address on its first day.

Duggan provided a select update on what’s changed in the last year. But he started with something that hasn’t.

Let me start with something first that stayed the same, and that is my relationship with the Detroit City Council. Remember, people a year ago said, ‘Ah, they’re just united in their opposition to Kevyn Orr. As soon as he’s gone, it will be business as usual.’ What you have seen in the last year is that the relationship has continued. We have as fine a city council as we’ve had in the city in a great many years. They are partners in everything I’m going to show you.”

All nine Detroit City Council members are in attendance on Mackinac Island, Duggan said.

Then he discussed some improvements in the city since he spoke at the 2014 conference. Here are some related to what he said last year during the bankruptcy era:

On Street Lights “When I started in January of last year, nearly half of the lights in the city were out. When I stood here a year ago, we had managed to install 7,000 lights, which I thought was pretty good. … Last week we installed our 44,000th light. … by the end of July, every neighborhood light in this city will be done.”

On Emergency Medical Services: The 18-minute response time for ambulances when Duggan started dropped to 14 minutes by this time last year. Now it’s 10 minutes, he said.

NOTE: He did not discuss fire or police response time.

On Maintenance of vacant lots: A year ago, the city had 100,000 vacant lots that had not been mowed (by the city) in four years, according to Duggan. “Now they’re getting cut twice a summer.” “The city looks better.”

On the Land Bank: “Last year we were auctioning one house a day. We’re now up to auctioning (up to) three houses a day.”

On the Kevyn Orr era: “I never agreed with the appointment of an emergency manager but that’s behind us.”

Duggan said he is absolutely not running for Michigan governor in 2016. He asked the media to stop reporting that he might.

Also at the 2014 conference, Mayor Duggan complained the Detroit Police Department was not yet under his control. Orr, at the time, had returned the day-to-day control of most city departments to the mayor, but the police department, led by Chief James Craig, was still under Orr’s authority.

Last week, Craig’s contract was extended by two years.

Gov. Rick Snyder


At last year’s Mackinac Policy Conference, Gov. Rick Snyder was five months away from election day, asking voters to return him for a second and final term. He also was in the midst of lobbying Legislators of both parties to pass the “grand bargain” bills to help Detroit’s bankruptcy case.

While speaking formally and in smaller circles at the 2014 annual event, Snyder was partially campaigning, but he was also directing the narrative of Detroit’s story:

  • Kevyn Orr was succeeding as the city’s emergency manager;

  • the city would soon return to control by its elected leadership;

  • the bankruptcy was necessary;

  • negotiations as part of the city’s bankruptcy case were yielding settlements.

In 2014, Snyder also was urging passage of the “grand bargain” bills. That was the legislation that provided $195 million in state money for Detroit’s pensions, ensured the city-owned artwork at the Detroit Institute of Arts would not be sold to pay creditors, and created a system of oversight for the city’s financial operations potentially for decades.

Here’s part of Snyder’s 2014 address:

Think about impact in our lifetime, to actually say, ‘We can get the financial affairs of the City of Detroit reconciled, trying to come up with a constructive solution in a very difficult time for a lot retirees.’ … We’re not talking about the city of Detroit going downhill anymore. We can all get on the same page and say, ‘Let’s talk about the growth of Detroit.’ Isn’t that something we should all aspire to? … The comeback of Detroit is critical to the comeback of Michigan. For Michigan to be a great state again, we need and we will get Detroit on the path to be a great city again.”

Following the policy conference, the Senate passed the Detroit-related legislation, voters returned Snyder to the governor’s office, and Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes approved the city’s exit from bankruptcy.


So far at the 2015 event, Snyder has focused on jobs creation, specifically in the trades.

Former Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr


A year ago, then-Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr came to the Mackinac Policy Conference hustling support for the “grand bargain” legislation in Lansing and urging creditors to vote “yes” on the Plan of Adjustment.

Also on his agenda during the 2014 event: continuing negotiations over the future of the city’s water department,

We’re doing a little bit better than I had anticipated, but we still have a long, long road and a lot of pitfalls and a lot of folks trying to trip us,” he told WDET in 2014.

Momentum was going Orr’s way toward a favorable vote on the plan, approval of the grand bargain legislation and confirmation of the plan at the fall trial. But last year at Mackinac, he wasn’t counting on any success.

I take nothing for grant,” he told WDET last year during an interview at the Grand Hotel. “I keep up a healthy level of paranoia.”

Since then, the Michigan Legislature approved the bills, which Gov. Rick Snyder signed. Most creditors voted in favor of the city’s Plan of Adjustment. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes confirmed the plan after weeks of hearings, and Orr left his emergency manager post in December, returning control of the city to the mayor and the city council. He worked for a few months advising in Atlantic City, New Jersey, which has its own financial emergency.


This week when Orr returns to the porch of the Grand Hotel for the 2015 Mackinac Policy Conference, he’s taking time away from his new-old job. Earlier this month Orr returned to his former employer in Washington D.C., the Jones Day law firm, which also represented the city during the bankruptcy proceedings. Orr left the firm to become Detroit’s emergency manager after Gov. Rick Snyder appointed him in March 2013.



In 2014 during the Mackinac Policy Conference, federal court mediators were working with representatives from the city and its creditors. The team, led by Chief U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Rosen, had helped the city reach settlements with several creditors in the bankruptcy case, including numerous employee and retiree groups.

Here’s what Orr said last year about that process, speaking at Mackinac: “We would not be where we are without the help of Judge Rosen and his mediators. These deals have been worked late into the night, 24/7, weekend calls. I can’t tell you how many Sundays, Saturday night after midnight calls we’ve had. Around the clock. We would not be where we are without that mediation process. … These mediations on a consensual agreement are really unprecedented. They’ve been tremendously, tremendously helpful and valuable. We wouldn’t be where we are without them.”

After last year’s conference, settlements in the case continued. Some came during the trial, bond insurers Syncora and Financial Guaranty Insurance Co., for example. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes throughout the case urged mediation and talks between all parties.


Since Rhodes retired earlier this year, he’s been speaking about the case and often praises the mediation efforts. In his commencement address at Walsh College in February, Rhodes said, “Everything we accomplished in the Detroit case was the result of teamwork. Teamwork among everyone involved: me as the judge, the mediators who worked to assist the parties in settling their issue, the lawyers, the other professionals, the creditors and the city’s own politicians and employees.”

Rosen recently gave the lunchtime address at the Wayne State University’s Dispute Resolution Consortium’s Urban Public Policy Resolution Conference “Renewal and Reconciliation in Urban Contexts.” He spoke about how effective mediation was crucial to the city’s bankruptcy case.

This week, Orr, Rosen and Rhodes will address the conference in a session titled “Detroit: Poised for Prosperity.” They will be joined by Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, which was one of the contributors to the “grand bargain.”

Sandra Svoboda, Special Assignments Manager

Recovering Bankruptcy Reporter/Blogger looking forward to chronicling regional revitalization on-air, digitally and through community engagement. Follow @WDETSandra

Stay connected to Detroit