If you will indulge my Matthew McConaughey/A Time To Kill plot device for a second: Close your eyes and imagine a wealthy white guy buying up Detroit real estate on the cheap for a private, for-profit venture. This venture will be large enough to allow it to fund services that are normally the domain of the public sector, i.e. public safety. And while this venture’s backers promise to use their effort to help revitalize Detroit, no one denies that it will radically alter the city’s landscape.
Now before you start shouting LAND GRAB, open your eyes. I’m not talking about John Hantz. I’m talking about Dan Gilbert.
Boom! Minds blown. It’s crazy, I know.
Really, what’s the difference between Gilbert’s strategy of purchasing downtown office buildings on the cheap and filling them with his employees and John Hantz’s plan to purchase city-owned vacant land for an agricultural venture?
Well, there is one difference. The majority of Gilbert’s purchases have been privately owned, partially occupied buildings that were already generating at least some property tax dollars for the city. Hantz is proposing to purchase barren, city-owned land, thus returning those parcels to the property tax rolls.
That’s not to say Hantz > Gilbert. Both plays are fundamentally similar. No one would argue, interior design choices aside, that Gilbert moving operations and manpower downtown is a bad thing.
Not the City Council presently wringing its hands over Hantz. They’ve feted Gilbert with a Spirit of Detroit Award for his “land grab.”
I can’t knock Gilbert either, even though, as the seven people who read me regularly can attest, I’m not his biggest fan. The guy got rich selling interest-only mortgages to drive time radio listeners during the housing bubble and his open letter to LeBron James was a frightening look into the dark mind of the pathologically insecure.
All that aside, like Amway’s commitment to Grand Rapids, Gilbert’s commitment to Detroit is an obvious plus. Especially if the promised retail big bang comes to fruition.
If we can all agree on that, then why has Detroit dithered for nearly four years on Hantz’s agricultural plan?
Given the choice between Hantz "grabbing" city-owned land so he can clean it up and develop tax-generating tree farms and the status quo—land as a city-owned liability with its own kind of “urban farm,” the kind that periodically sprouts old tires and discarded bags of Cheeto’s Flaming Hot, I’ll take the Hantz land grab every day of the week and twice on this Tuesday.
The fears of Hantz’s secret plans—he might build a factory!—are akin to 9/11 conspiracy theories and those Maine voter fraud allegations. Perhaps Detroit’s grape-throwing class hasn’t yet heard the news, but we’re living in a post-industrial economy. Rich white people don’t build factories anymore, not in the United States.
Hells bells, if John Hantz wanted to build a factory or condos or whatever, he’d probably just say so. If that were the case, the same people currently questioning his motives would throw him a parade.
The proposed Hantz purchase may raise a legitimate question about why one wealthy entrepreneur’s purchase offer rates so much attention when countless residents and small businesses have trouble purchasing neighborhood vacant lots from the city.
That’s valid, but denying Hantz doesn’t move us closer to a reality where the city—currently Detroit’s largest landholder—sells lots to tax-paying residents and businesses, for community gardens or pocket parks or even the occasional in-fill house, without a hassle.
Arguably, the Hantz sale might set a precedent whereby the city finally loosens its grip on its inventory of vacant and fallow land. Something it desperately needs to do.
At the least, the deal means Detroit will have 143 fewer acres available for illegal dumping.