Rick Haglund: What’s behind Patterson’s economic legacy in Oakland County

August 19, 2019 5:25 am

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson speaks at 2014 press conference for Proposal 1 | Michigan Municipal League via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Within hours of his death on Aug. 3, journalists served up two stark portraits of controversial Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson.

Some condemned Patterson for his long history of racially charged comments about Detroit and its majority-black population. Others praised him for his deft leadership of wealthy Oakland County.

If you haven’t already done so, read the searing, succinct account of Patterson’s bigotry by the Advance’s Ken Coleman. There’s nothing for me to add. 

But what about Patterson’s economic record? Was his performance as good as his press clippings?

I put the question to Don Grimes, a University of Michigan economist who has co-authored an annual Oakland County economic forecast for more than 20 years.

Grimes told me one of the keys to Patterson’s success was the quality of his staff, which Grimes described as “very high caliber for local government.”

And “better than all the people we have worked with over the years, he was able to take the information we provided him and convert it into programs,” Grimes said. 

Among them are Automation Alley that promotes advanced technologies; Medical Mainstreet, a group of hospitals, universities and health care-related businesses working to grow the life sciences industry; and Emerging Sectors, an effort to recruit new “knowledge-based” companies to the county.

Patterson’s office said those initiatives have attracted more than $5.2 billion in investment, and added and retained more than 91,000 jobs.

Grimes said he and his U of M colleagues often faced pushback from business and government leaders when expressing their view that manufacturing was not going to be a significant source of new jobs in the future.

“But we never got that from Brooks,” he said. “He was very willing to accept the inevitable need to diversify the county’s economy away from traditional manufacturing.”

Patterson also has been credited — and taken credit — for maintaining the county’s AAA bond rating and a multiyear rolling budget that’s balanced through 2023.

There is no question that Oakland County is an economic powerhouse. Oakland ranks sixth-best overall among the 38 largest suburban counties in the country, according to a U of M analysis that includes educational attainment, poverty, income, and the number of professionals and managers in the workforce.

“Oakland County has performed almost as well as any suburban county on the outskirts of any successful major city,” Grimes said.

But despite widespread praise for his management of the county, Oakland’s economic strength long predates Patterson’s arrival as the county’s leader.

Its top three employers — Beaumont Health, Fiat Chrysler and General Motors — were in place and growing years before Patterson became county executive in 1993.

Much of the county’s attractiveness for jobs and new residents stems from its vibrant communities, its colleges and universities, and top-notch public and private schools — assets that Patterson was able to leverage to grow Oakland’s economy through most of his tenure.

But Patterson could not steer Oakland away from the economic tsunami that struck Michigan in the 2000s — the so-called “lost decade.”

The county lost 156,500 jobs during that decade, wiping out 86% of the jobs added during the 1990s.

Oakland and neighboring Macomb County also greatly benefitted from the massive business and population migration out of Detroit and Wayne County over the past 60 years.

Job growth in Macomb has actually outpaced larger Oakland since 1992, the year Patterson was elected as Oakland County executive, according to veteran demographer Kurt Metzger. 

While Oakland added more jobs, Macomb employment grew 16.5% between 1992 and 2018, compared to Oakland’s 13% growth. Employment in Wayne County fell 11.3% in the same time period.

Metzger, a Democrat and mayor of Pleasant Ridge in southern Oakland County, said he had a “complicated” relationship with Patterson.

“He is one of the very few Republicans I have voted for in my 50-plus years of voting because of his ability to maintain a top credit rating and what he did to guarantee that south Oakland did not suffer” from the extension of I-696 that sliced through the area, Metzger told me.

But Metzger said Patterson’s “racist rants,” his lack of effort in addressing the needs of struggling Pontiac and his resistance to regionalism, particularly transit, “will always taint his legacy.”

Little Caesars Arena, Detroit | Susan J. Demas

Patterson was a staunch defender of his county’s economic interests and reveled in poaching Detroit businesses.

But in recent years, he was distressed to see Oakland businesses, including Quicken Loans, Little Caesars and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan move thousands of jobs back to the Motor City. (The Detroit Lions and Pistons also moved back to Detroit from Pontiac and Auburn Hills.)

They are doing so, in part, to attract young, educated workers who want to want to live, work and play in an urban environment. 

Some of Oakland’s sprawling suburbs, including Novi, Southfield and Troy, are building dense business and residential developments to try to compete with Detroit’s vibe.

Patterson may well have been the right leader at the right time for Oakland County. But metro Detroit could be entering a new era in which the city and its suburbs work to grow the economic pie instead of fighting over its pieces.

Dave Coulter, the respected Democratic mayor of Ferndale, was chosen in a contentious process by a fractured county board of commissioners to succeed Patterson. Under Coulter’s leadership, Ferndale has experienced an economic resurgence, attracting new businesses and residents with its attitude of being welcoming to all.

That’s exactly what is needed to repair decades of divisiveness that has prevented metro Detroit from achieving its economic potential.

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Rick Haglund
Rick Haglund

Rick Haglund writes the "Micheconomy" column for the Michigan Advance. He's a former reporter and business columnist for Booth Newspapers, now the MLive Media Group, with extensive experience covering Michigan’s economy and the auto industry. He now works as a freelance writer based in Southeast Michigan.