A couple of weeks ago, Aaron Renn of Urbanophile ran a post called ‘Replay: What is a A Strategy?’ and then applied his answer to that question to the context of cities:
(T)he best strategies often target a whitespace opportunity where there is not an entrenched competitor and you can get first mover advantage… The second piece of the puzzle is to figure out the capabilities and programs you need to have in order to achieve the vision. This is where the real hard work beings. If you want to be at the top of a market, you need to create a value proposition that creates differentiated appeal and which has sustainable competitive advantage. As Warren Buffet might say, you need to build a “wide moat” business…
He walked through Indianapolis as an example, and I decided to try my hand at brainstorming a strategy for my community, Ann Arbor.
Ann Arbor is easy, maybe deceptively so, because it has arguably the best public university in the Midwest and probably the highest concentration of very educated people in the Great Lakes region. The U’s acquisition at a bargain basement price of the lab infrastructure at the vast former Pfizer facility probably puts it over the top for life sciences R&D, including, of course, medical research (to name one recent win, this nice big fat infusion of funding for cancer research).
But as Aaron noted in his post, meds and eds are far from a wide moat business — every aging city in the Rust Belt with a hospital and/or university are chasing those. I’d like to see how Ann Arbor could leverage something that’s a little more unique among mid-sized college towns: its proximity and access to a major international airport, Detroit Metro, and the new aerotropolis Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano is trying to build, an economic cluster built around shipping and transport logistics. Even if commuter rail between Ann Arbor and Detroit never happens (it won’t), I think Ann Arbor could reap tremendous dividends from leveraging whatever transportation links it could forge with the airport in Romulus; the more it invests, the more it could gain.
A second idea also pertains to transportation: the possibility of building a strong commuter network via vanpool. The University and the UM Health System have evolved a robust vanpool system for those coming from great distances to work here. Every day, vanpools bring workers in from a vast hinterland, from the Jackson area, from Troy, from down US-23 as far as Toledo and north as far as Howell. We’ll probably never have commuter rail of any kind, but there’s room for our local leaders to raise that vanpool infrastructure to a level we haven’t yet seen anywhere else in the country. While I’m not sure it would itself generate jobs, it could enhance the livability of our region by reducing traffic congestion and improving air quality, and perhaps could be extended to complement our (already very good) bus system for non-commuter uses like grocery shopping and other errands, trips downtown or out to the mall, late night rides back from the bar, etc.
For Detroit, I’d contend another “wide-moat” vision could evolve from its status as the capital of Arab-American culture. Now I bet a lot of people wouldn’t have thought of the latter as an asset in these virulently Islamophobic times, but I think it is: there’s tremendous tourism potential; the energy of enterprise immigrants bring; maybe the opportunity to steer federal dollars here for Arabic language immersion programs for intelligence specialists, diplomats, and military personnel.
Another window of opportunity could be that new patent office I mentioned in last week’s post — again, a vision that focuses on federal dollars. It worked for the South. Every year the Detroit News & Free Press editorial board whines about how Michigan is a ‘donor state,’ paying more in federal taxes than it gets back. I’ve outlined just a couple of places we could start in an effort to transform that.
On a different note, I will be driving with my man to New Orleans this week for New Year’s, and spending a night in Louisville and Nashville on the drive to and from. I’ve never been to any of those places and I’m super excited. Next post will be about my impressions about those places, so different from Motown and Tree Town, and I’ll try to get some good pictures to post too.